Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Accessing Iraq: Kuwaiti and regional trade with Iraq

Executive magazine
By Paul Cochrane in Kuwait City

SEVERAL HUNDRED KUWAITI trucks a day roll over the Abdali border crossing into Iraq, where the containers are then transferred onto Iraqi vehicles for the onward journey. Meanwhile, 40 minutes drive away at the Safwan border crossing, over 1,000 trucks a day pass through the Virginia-Hobari military camp to enter Iraq.
Such a difference is not an indicator of Iraq’s economic particularities or the security situation. Trade with other immediate neighbors, Syria, Turkey and Iran in particular, is undergoing a resurgence, with Tehran and Damascus the main beneficiaries.
What such informal cross border traffic figures suggest are that nearly five years after the invasion of Iraq, Kuwaiti cross border trade is still predominantly traffic for the US military and associated dependents.
This reality runs against the grain of one of the expected economic spin-offs of the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime, that Kuwait would become the Gulf’s logistical hub to access Iraq’s emerging market after decades of hostility and minimal economic interaction.
But Kuwait’s barriers to foreign investment, negligible sea and air trade due to infrastructure shortcomings, and overly zealous yet equally lethargic customs officials that create logistical headaches, are all holding back Kuwait’s transit hub potential.

Kuwaiti tanks en route to the Safwan border with Iraq (PC)

Trucks parked at a make-shift mosque near the Safwan (military) border with Iraq (PC)

Bolstering relations

“After the invasion there was a flood of companies coming to base themselves here but after several months they pulled out and went home due to the vague tax and investment laws,” said Hani Mhanna, Chairman of the Iraq Trade Bureau in Kuwait.
By law, Kuwait requires foreign businesses to be 51% owned by a local investor, as all the GCC countries required in the not so distant past. But Kuwait is lagging behind other Gulf countries in revoking such measures, which have been dropped by the likes of the Emirates and Qatar to attract FDI and diversify away from oil revenues.
With taxes as high as 45%, and foreign companies faced with paying taxes twice, to the government and a local, Kuwait’s draconian FDI laws have also resulted in foreign companies entering into illegal practises to bypass regulations to establish a local presence.
“This taxation on foreign investors is stopping companies from setting up here. It’s been a mess and not enhanced since the 1960s,” said Mhanna, adding that this has affected cross-border trade with Iraq to the benefit of other countries that have inked bilateral trade agreements with Baghdad.
“Foodstuffs are all from Iran and Turkey, I was surprised. But they are pretty much the only countries that will deal with Iraq,” said Lorie Killingsworth, Vice President of General Trading and Contracting in Kuwait, a logistics firm that deals with Iraq.
Iran has seen trade blossom with Iraq over the past five years, with Iraq’s direct purchases standing in 2007 at $2 billion, and a further $2 billion more in “exchanges of kind.” And this, suggest analysts, is only the tip of the iceberg.
Iran is to establish a car plant near Baghdad, is funding industrial projects, constructing two 300,000 barrels per day pipelines between Basra and Abadan, as well as building electricity generators in the south, the most recent a $150 million contact with SUNIR of Iran for a 160 MW plant in Sadr City. Tehran has also signed bilateral trade agreements with Iraq’s Kurds, with trade estimated at $1 billion in the past year.
Turkey, meanwhile, accounts for some $4.9 billion of Iraq’s imports, roughly 23% of the $20.8 billion imported a year. This is primarily with Iraqi Kurdistan, with Turkey accounting for 80% of FDI in the semi-autonomous area.
However, Istanbul is mulling selective economic sanctions against the Kurdish area due to ongoing forays by Kurdish rebel groups based in Iraq against Turkish forces, which prompted multiple military incursions late last year. Further political differences could also flare up again between Iran and Iraq, reaffirming Syria and Jordan as primary transit hubs, with Syria accounting for $4.8 billion (26.9% of all imports) and Jordan $1.3 billion (6.3%) of Iraq’s imports. Damascus has also just secured a lucrative contract to transit Iraqi grain imports and Syrian Trade Minister Amir Al Khalil in November said mutual trade agreements would be “activated.”
Other factors that will shape trade with Iraq could be the division of Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds out of the country’s 18 provinces, as put forward in the Iraq Federalism Bipartisan Amendment to the 2008 Defence Authorization Bill in the US.
If federalism happens, for Kuwait this would mean a Shiite-controlled corridor into Iraq.
On the ground however, this is already the modus operandi. “There is an unwritten code, a Shia truck will not go to the Sunni side, and vice-versa,” said Killingsworth. And although security is better, she added, it is still an issue. “It’s an unknown, you don’t know what’s going on. Recently two housing units our trucks were carrying vanished, just outside of Basra.”
But once the security situation improves – the ever-present gorilla in the room for Iraqi trade issues - it is expected that traffic will shift from Kuwait’s military border crossing to the commercial side.
“That crossing is untapped and we will see a huge increase in business for Kuwait once there is peace,” said Ahmad Hammauda, Assistant Managing Director of Global Logistics Services and Warehousing in Kuwait.
Signs that this is slowly underway is evident at the border, with the US’ Camp Naval Star at the Abdali civilian border closed down in September. Nonetheless, despite the current geopolitical tensions affecting Iraq’s neighbors, Kuwait, with minimal industry or agriculture, has yet to develop its transport hub status or to sink petrodollars into Iraq.
“Kuwait’s potential is in financial investment, setting up malls and selling processed foodstuffs, as well as partnerships with the oil ministry. I’m sure M.H. Alshaya [ Gulf retailer for clothing giants H&M and Marks and Spencers] will be there. Kuwait has this over Iran,” said Killingsworth.

The near empty road to the Abdali border with Iraq (PC)

By sea, by air, or across the desert?

Political animosity between Kuwait and Iraq has been a factor in hindering the fostering of relations, particularly over their turbulent history, the 1990 invasion, and the widely held notion in Iraq and much of the Arab world that Kuwait is a geographical part of Iraq. However, unlike the hostility between neighbors in other parts of the region, Iraq does have a diplomatic presence in Kuwait and Iraqi politicians have visited the country since 2003.
“The hope is to turn cross-border relations into what they were in the 1950s and 1960s, when Kuwaitis went shopping in Southern Iraq, and Iraqis came over to Kuwait,” said Hammauda.
To turn this hope into a reality, Kuwait has now earmarked (in Nov.) $60-$80 billion for infrastructure and construction projects, including airport expansion, road extensions and a North-South GCC railway. One major project will be the $1.2 billion port in Bubiyan Island, northeast of the Kuwaiti mainland and close to the Shatt Al Arab river that winds inland through Iran to Basra.

“Kuwait should focus on logistics, that’s why Bubiyan is being developed and free zones at the border. Bubiyan’s location is a gold mine for access to Iraq, Iran, and east Saudi Arabia,” said Hammauda.
However, like the overhaul of Kuwait’s foreign investment laws, the Bubiyan port project has been on the drawing board for years. Foot dragging by a government grown complacent with high oil revenues has prevented Kuwait’s sea cargo sector from developing, with a public-private joint venture inked in 2005 that should have seen the port completed by 2008. Equally, the viability of the port depends on extensive dredging to remove the mud that is washed down from the Shatt Al Arab, a factor that has prevented deep sea vessels from docking, in addition to the ships sunk and scuttled during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war that block sections of the northern Gulf.
“Kuwait is not doing a very good job, there are hardly any shippers that come here, as mother vessels go to Dubai then to here,” said Hammauda.
Deciding on whether to use land or sea, he said his company chose the three- to four-day land crossing from Dubai rather than use feeder vessels from the Emirates due to the uncertainty of customs and loading times.
This means, however, that for goods to enter Kuwait or Iraq, they have to cross Saudi Arabia, which has its own associated problems.
“Our biggest problem, outside of security in Iraq, is customs, mainly in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait,” said Hammauda. “Our second problem is over-protection. There are layers of bureaucracy, to check that a container is not smuggling in a bottle of Jack Daniels. Instead of investing in technology, they are increasing bureaucracy,” he added.
There is also the rather paradoxical position of two of Iraq’s potentially biggest trade partners, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, building US-Mexico border style walls to keep Iraqis out (with Saudi’s slated to cost some $7 billion) while at the same time trying to boost bilateral trade.
“Walls are coming up in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. For us this will make it more difficult to do business,” added Hammauda.
It is perhaps no wonder then that Iraqi-Kuwaiti trade is languishing while Dubai, several hundred kilometres from Iraq, is enticing Iraqi businessmen to the Jebel Ali Free Zone, and air cargo operators are opting for the Emirate rather than charter aircraft out of Kuwait.
“You wouldn’t think of it but Dubai is doing well out of Iraqi business,” said Killingsworth.
(All photos by Paul Cochrane)

Thursday, October 18, 2007


November - NOX magazine

A year after Hizbullah kicked Israel in the proverbial balls, the Lebanese resistance movement has brought out a computer game for wanna-be fighters to take on the Israelis in a partial re-enactment of the 34-day war.
To find out more about Special Forces 2: The Tale of The Truthful Pledge, Hizbullah invited Nox to meet with the game’s project manager in Beirut’s southern suburbs at Bayt al Ankabout (‘House of the Spider’), a museum to the recent war that gets its name from an expression: a spider’s web is not as strong as it looks.
The bunker shaped museum is a testament to what Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayeed Hassan Nasrallah, called the party’s Nasr min Allah (‘Victory from God’) against the Israeli invasion, proving that the Middle East’s most powerful army could be successfully resisted. As the saying goes in Lebanon, “Hizbullah won because it didn’t lose, and Israel lost because it didn’t win.”
Spoils of war litter the grounds of the ‘spider’s house’, with the entrance to the museum flanked by a partly buried Israeli tank and an artillery piece. Inside there is a brief history of the war, infamous statements by Bush, Rice, Olmert and co., pictograms of Israel’s war arsenal, photos of the conflict and its devastation, captured Israeli gear (including a bust-up iPod), and a guide to identifying Israeli army regiment badges. The pièce de la résistance of the exhibit is an Israeli tank at the bottom of a crater with a small cinema set-up around it.
Fuad Rastoum is waiting in a large, sparsely furnished security shed. A middle-aged and softly spoken man, Rastoum has the rather curious title of Executive Manager of the Hizbullah Central Internet Bureau, the department in charge of website development and creating Hizbullah’s latest computer game, which comes four years after Special Forces 1 hit the shelves.
Rastoum says the idea of developing a computer game came from a child. “It was like a flash: America is issuing games so why don’t Arab countries do it?”
Indeed. Washington has gone as far as bringing out a game, America’s Army: Empower Yourself, Defend Freedom (2002), which was deliberately aimed as recruitment tool to encourage youths to join the under-manned US armed forces. America’s Army is just one of dozens of other shoot-‘em up games in which Arabs are portrayed as the baddie-terrorist, with (take your pick) Special Forces, Delta Force, Navy Seals, the US Army etc. battling it out in what is more often than not a desert against bearded Arabs in jalabas, kaffiyehs and flip-flops. One only has to see images of Hizbullah’s fighters decked out in camouflage, night-vision goggles, and M-16s to realise that these crude generalisations are far from reality. And secondly, just for the record, Lebanon has no desert.
“If a child plays these games they grow up seeing Arabs as terrorists. We felt there should be an opposite to fight this current,” says Rastoum. “When the US invents these games it is because their mentality comes from hegemony, to control the world. They don’t believe in the independence of other countries,” he adds.

Hizbullah's Fuad Rastoum at Bayt Al Ankabout (PC).

A partly submerged Israeli tank forms part of Hizbullah's Bayt Al Ankabout exhibition in the Southern suburbs of Beirut (PC).

So why doesn’t Hizbullah produce games on other countries getting slapped around, such as through the eyes, and via the trigger fingers, of an Iraqi or Palestinian resistance fighter? Or a hypothetical game that takes on the US if Washington decides to attack Iran?
“Hizbullah has one enemy, the entity of Israel. Hizbullah doesn’t see other countries as enemies. And a game about the US attacking Iran? The Iranians could do it themselves,” he says.
Special Forces 2 however, says Rastoum, is about educating the Lebanese youth about the Israeli war machine and learning how to use resources effectively. “We want a child to grow up as a man who will not be meek before his enemy,” he says.
It is also about partly re-creating the 34-day war, and depicting southern Lebanon. A six-stage game, The Tale of The Truthful Pledge is your standard 3D shoot-‘em up and roll play scenario, set in the battlefields of last year’s war.
Photographs were taken of the major battle sites – Bint Jbeil, Taybe, and the south’s numerous valleys – and then converted to 3D graphics.
“Anyone from Bint Jbeil would recognize his town when playing the game – they can see the football pitch, the hospital…” says Rastoum.
The game starts, as the war did, with the capture of the two Israeli soldiers, once the player has fired off a rocket and secured the area to make the seizure.
One level, set in Bint Jbeil, requires the player to prevent the Israelis from placing the Israeli flag on the town’s football pitch, where Nasrallah in year’s past had given a speech. “The player then goes to the hospital to purify it from the Zionists,” says Rastoum.
A next stage is to re-enact one of Hizbullah’s most notorious stunts in the war, hitting an Israeli navy boat with a rocket. But as the navy vessel was far out at sea, Rastoum says they had to create a virtual island for the player to get to, “purify,” collect a rocket launcher and then fire at the target.
Other missions require firing off Katyusha rockets at Israeli settlements, but Rastoum says you don’t see where they strike.
Such a move was not intended to downplay the violence of the game, which was questioned by some of the foreign media.
“Questions are asked repeatedly about whether we think this game encourages violence,” says Rastoum. “Children living through the horrors here, especially last July, saw buildings hit by one-tonne bombs collapse in front of them. The Israelis are teaching the children hatred, not us.”
The game has quite clearly hit a mark with the Lebanese. In the month since the game was launched – timed to coincide with the anniversary of Harb Tamouz (the July war) on August 14 – some 25,000 copies of the $10 game have been sold and, most likely, additional thousands have been copied and sold on through Lebanon’s rampant counterfeit market.
The bureau is now working on a multi-language version of Special Forces 2 in English, French and Farsi, but internationally marketing a Hibzullah game does have its problems.
With the party designated a terrorist organization by the US government and most countries weary of being labelled “terrorist lovers,” the game has faced the same resistance as pro-Hizbullah TV channel Al Manar. The channel, which had its studios pummelled to dust last summer, is on the US Terrorist Exclusion List, and is banned on Australian, Dutch, French and Spanish satellite providers for allegedly “inciting violence”.
“Because this is a Hizbullah game we will not be allowed in the US. We will be banned for sure in other places. There are always pressures applied by Zionist organizations around the world, they are powerful,” says Rastoum.
Copies are making their way around the Middle East though, with individuals allegedly smuggling in copies to peddle to Palestinians in the beleaguered West Bank and Gaza Strip.
After all, as Rastoum says, “It’s just playing a game in a virtual world, pulling the trigger on the Israeli enemy.”

Box - Gaming in the Middle East

Hizbullah is not the only group to have brought out a computer game to take on their enemies. In 2002, Damascus-based games producer Afkar Media brought out Under Ash, which views the Palestinian Intifada through the eyes of Ahmad, a Palestinian teenager resisting the Israeli occupation. Based on reality, players have to harness their stone throwing skills.
The sequel,Tahta al-Hisar (Under the Siege), was brought out in 2005 and is based on the second Palestinian uprising. The company’s latest is Al Quraysh, a strategy game that tells the story of the first 100 years of Islam's history from the viewpoint of the Bedouins, Arabs, Persians, and Romans.
Last December, a Lebanese gamer in France known as Ziad El-Hajj brought out The Battle for the Serail, which requires players to kill soldiers, battle with militia men in the US embassy’s lobby that are supervised by political leaders Walid Jumblatt, Saad Hariri, Samir Geagea and current PM Fouad Siniora, and in the final stage storm the Lebanese parliament (Serail) and kill “all the traitors and thieves” in Siniora’s government.
Pro-government media linked Hizbullah to the game, but the party denies any involvement. “The game really hurt us somehow,” says Hizbullah’s Fuad Rastoum. “Some started blaming Hizbullah, but it is an independent thing.”
The concept of El-Hajj’s game is not that different from the Global Islamic Media Front’s 2006 free online game Quest for Bush, aka Night of Bush Capturing, where players navigate various missions that include “Jihad Growing Up,” “Americans’ Hell” and “Bush Hunted Like a Rat.” In the final stage, players fight the president. As Bush famously said in his challenge to the Iraqi resistance in 2003: “Bring it on.”


Not seeing the valley for the billboards

Commentary – Executive magazine (Middle East) November

Earlier this year Sao Paolo’s conservative mayor, Gilberto Kassab, made a radical decision when he introduced a Clean City Law that banned all public advertising in the metropolis, saying it constituted as “visual pollution.” All 15,000 billboards, outdoor video screens and ads on buses were removed.
The advertising industry through up their arms in horror but the public will prevailed, with more than 70% of Paulistas approving, according to surveys, and some $8 million in fines issued to cleanse Sao Paulo’s urban landscape.
In Lebanon such a development seems otherworldly. Take a drive north from Beirut to the Casino du Liban and you are bombarded with images of scantily clad ladies, scantily clad men, bottles of booze, tinned meat, watches, political propaganda, and so on.
Billboards obscure signposts and traffic dividers, in places, have adverts every five meters – it is serious overkill. Indeed, one of the reasons billboards are banned on highways in much of the world is because ads are a distraction, especially if you are a male with wandering eyes and an gargantuan image of a woman’s bursting cleavage heaves into view; just enough of a distraction to ram into the car in front.
It would arguably be all right if this plethora of billboards were confined to urban areas, but billboards pop out of the Lebanese landscape in the most wonderful spots – instead of an unimpaired view of a valley stretching into the distance you get to see a hair replacement ad. Nice.
It was not ever thus. In the early 1990s the billboard epidemic was similar to what it is today, with hoardings mushrooming all over the place as the country struggled to get back on its feet.
Then the government decided to tear down all the billboards and establish regulations that stipulate where billboards could be placed and the distance between each hoarding. There was a brief respite for the visually weary, and a few years later the practice started again, with a vengeance.
Although billboard companies are now individually abiding by the law by erecting hoardings 100 meters apart, the problem is that a firm will place their billboard in-between a rival’s, and have the next ad 100 meters on, meaning billboards are every 25 or 50 meters.
“There has been a total misapplication of the law and a major laissez faire by companies, sometimes municipalities, who have profited from the income,” said Danny Richa, president of the International Advertising Association’s Lebanon chapter. “This is in addition to a lot of political figures who profited from free adverts for the elections and gave backing and blessing to some companies to break the law.”
Herein lies the conundrum for the sector and the state. Billboards are a major income earner for cash-strapped municipalities, but the more billboards there are the less effective advertising becomes and the less money there is to be made by municipalities.
Richa said that in the first year after the regulations were enacted a company would need to advertise on just 200 billboards to get a result, with the average price of a 3x4 meter billboard $100 a week. Today, to get the same reach a company would need to advertise on 1,000 billboards, paying an average of $20-$25/w per hoarding.
“It’s costing billboard companies more to place these ads, maintain them, and bill post them, and the advertisers are getting less efficiency,” said Richa.
So what is to be done? Outdoor marketing is estimated at some $14 million a year (not including wall ads), an important income earner, and billboards do serve a purpose as a form of visual entertainment when stuck in traffic, as people increasingly are. Equally, outdoor adverts have proven to be morale boosters, such as after the July War when numerous companies lifted people’s spirits through witty billboard campaigns – something the international media picked up on and reported.
Part of the problem though is that alternative forms of advertising have not taken off in Lebanon, such as direct marketing or internet advertising, as mass advertising is cheap and effective in terms of geography and reaching the country’s small populace.
Going Sao Paulo’s route is therefore not an option for the foreseeable future. What is called for is tighter regulations, such as applied by Beirut’s municipality, which permits fewer billboards but charges higher prices.
“We have reached a point where we’d like the billboard owners to get together and immediately start to apply the law again by removing the excess, because if they don’t we will be obliged to lobby the government and could find a situation where all billboards are removed: the good, the bad, and the ugly,” said Richa.
The less draconian solution is to implement regulations area by area, fining violators and entitling companies that play by the book the visibility they are paying for. As for the countryside, let’s be able to see the valley without the billboards.

Terror finance trail vanishes in Saudi Arabia

The kingdom has pledged to crack down on funding activities for the likes of al-Qa'ida. So why the secrecy? Paul Cochrane reports
Published: 30 September 2007 The Independent On Sunday

Six years on from the atrocities of 9/11, in which 19 terrorists, 15 of them Saudi nationals, flew jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon – with the fourth plane crashing in a field – Saudi Arabia is still a major obstacle in the fight to crack down on terrorist financing.

Saudi Arabia, the Middle East's economic powerhouse and major US ally, only criminalised money laundering and terrorist financing in 2003, after the kingdom itself was the target of terrorist attacks.

It claims it is clamping down on terrorist financing, but just one major report has been carried out into how effectively the kingdom is implementing legislation. This was in 2004 by the OECD's Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global body overseeing anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing initiatives.

Recent information on the kingdom's efforts is almost non-existent, which the US State Department considers a problem as it "impedes the evaluation and design of enhancements to the judicial aspects of its anti-money laundering system".

The FATF said: "We don't have any current information on Saudi Arabia." It recommended getting in touch with the International Monetary Fund and the Middle East/ North Africa FATF, a regional body based in Bahrain.

However, the IMF did not respond to queries and Mena-FATF could not provide any information – not even the central bank's phone number – on the kingdom's progress. Such a lack of detail raises questions about the organisation's claim that money laundering and terrorist financing have fallen by 90 per cent in the Middle East in recent years.

The private sector was also of little help in shedding light on Saudi Arabia's compliance with FATF and UN recommendations. The head of financial crime investigations at a leading Saudi bank said: "Rules within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia prevent me from discussing what Saudi Arabia or the bank has achieved in relation to anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing."

Such a glaring lack of transparency is not unusual. Saudi Arabia is secretive about its internal workings and press freedoms are non-existent. The Saudi media made no mention of the recent exposé by the British press of BAE paying a sweetener to Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

But the information blackout on terrorist financing is alarming as Saudi Arabia is considered a "moderate" Arab state by the US and UK governments and an ally in the "war on terror".

Moreover, Saudi Arabia's brand of Islam, the ultra-conservative Wahhabism, has been exported globally and is followed by al-Qa'ida and other Sunni fundamentalist groups responsible for terrorist attacks around the world.

Funding for such groups comes from charitable organisations and wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Exactly how much cash flows through or from Saudi Arabia is difficult to tell due to the country's cash-based society and because no personal income records are kept for tax purposes. Additionally, under the five pillars of Islam, Muslims have a religious obligation – zakat – to donate money to charity, which is often done anonymously.

Such donationscan be, knowingly or unknowingly, used to finance terrorist organisations. In the decade up to 2002, according to a report to the UN Security Council, al- Qa'ida and other Islamist bodies collected between £150m and £250m, mostly from Saudi charities and private donors. This practice is still occurring, with Saudi Arabia linked to funding Sunni jihadists in Iraq.

Stuart Levey, the US Treasury's under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, told the Senate Banking Committee last year that there were concerns over "deep-pocket donors" and the abuse of charities to fund militants. "Is money leaving Saudi Arabia to fund terrorism abroad? Yes," he was quoted as saying. "Undoubtedly, some of that money is going to Iraq. And it's going to South-East Asia and it's going to any other place where there are terrorists."

Several multilateral charities based in Saudi Arabia are under scrutiny by the US government, such as the Muslim World League (MWL), the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) for donations to Palestinian group Hamas, and the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), which has been linked to funding for al-Qa'ida, Islamic groups in Chechnya and the Philippines, and Hamas

Saudi Arabia has been directly linked to the funding of Hamas, with Israel issuing indictments in June claiming that millions of shekels were transferred from the Saudi Arabia-based Charity Coalition to operatives in Jerusalem.

However, Hamas is widely viewed in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East as a legitimate resistance group and political party. This in part explains why, according to the 2004 FATF report, the kingdom's legal definition of terrorist financing "does not conform to international standards as expressed in the UN International Convention on the Suppression of Terrorist Financing".

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia's unwillingness to curb such funding has been queried by the US government, which believes it is dragging its feet on multilateral charities.

According to the US Senate, assets of formerly suspected Saudi Arabia-based charities were slated to be merged into a new organisation last year, the Saudi National Commission for Relief and Charity Work Abroad, but as of this month, it has still not been established. The US Treasury has urged the commission to include the MWL, WAMY and IIRO under its watch.

Saudi Arabia has also been accused of using current legislation to further its own political ends. In February, 10 Saudi individuals arrested for terrorist financing were alleged to be political dissidents by human rights groups.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Phishing for your money

Commentary - Executive magazine October 2007

When I was in London recently I tried withdrawing some cash from my British bank, but was denied access. On calling the bank I was asked if I had made several transactions – when “no, no, no and no” were my replies I was informed I’d been defrauded. Thousands of dollars had been taken from my account.
I’d get the money back, but would first have to sign a declaration form, get a new credit card and wait 10 days to be reimbursed. Whew.
Relating the story to friends it was surprising to find that all of them had either had a relative defrauded or experienced it themselves; in some cases more than once.
How it happens is by ‘phishing,’ where hackers send in what are called Trojans - software downloaded without knowledge of the user - that take screen shots of your computer, allowing the capture of passwords and credit card details.
In Britain the problem has become so acute that the Association for Payment Clearing Services, a banking industry body, said there had been an 8,000 percent growth in online fraud between 2004 and 2006, estimated at losses of $90 million last year alone. Online business is big business in Britain, with 26.5 million people undertaking an estimated 372 million online transactions a year.
As technology becomes more widespread phishing could increasingly happen in the Middle East. Indeed I had been ‘phished’ in Beirut, albeit by some crooks working through Italy, the destination for my looted cash. Whether Arab banks are facing this issue yet it is not making any headlines, but de-frauding will no doubt come to the region as banks and goods outlets increasingly adopt the online service and hackers size up another global region to plunder.
The other financial shocker of my trip to the overcast British Isles was the extent private debt was affecting the lives of most inhabitants. The majority of people I encountered had debt, with my former student friends (American friends are another story) owing thousands of pounds, years after they had graduated from a university system partially funded by the state. Such debt is hindering that all-important purchase, a property – but that of course requires going even further into the red.
For young people starting out in life such debt looms over them like a Damocles sword, with the average 18 to 24-year-old owing $5,720 in unsecured borrowing, and some 108,000 in the same age bracket having credit card debts of more than $10,000.
The willingness of Brits to go into debt is only rivalled by the Americans, with the average Briton owing twice as much in unsecured borrowing – overdrafts, personal loans, credit card debt – than the typical European.
According to consultancy firm Grant Thornton, Britain owes a collective $2,690 billion in mortgage and unsecured debt. For the fist time that figure is higher than Britain’s expected gross domestic product (GDP), forecast at $2,660 billion for 2007.
This debt has trebled in the decade that Labour has been in 10 Downing Street, and is largely based on a runaway housing market, which accounts for $2.261 trillion of debt while personal loans and credit card debt stands at $428 billion.
But such disproportionate debt in relation to GDP poses a problem. Britain is essentially consuming more than it produces, in goods and services. Adam Smith, that doyen of capitalist thinking now commemorated on the back of the new £20 note, would have been horrified. Smith disapproved of speculative fever (which is now getting hedge funds and banks in deep water) and an economic emphasis on buying and selling (Britain’s “buy now, pay later” culture) rather than producing actual assets. The true healthiness of an economy that is based on such intangibles is highly questionable.
Arab financial institutions should watch, very closely, how Britain and America deal with the current financial crisis, particularly as this part of the world is striving to emulate the Anglo-American economic model.
Such out of control debt, and the ease with which banks dish out cash, even to the unemployed, has caused serious reverberations around the world as well as negatively impacting on the lives of millions of home-owning Americans and now, Brits.
The run on Britain’s fifth-biggest mortgage lender, Northern Rock, last month – with $2 billion withdrawn in a day over fears the company could go bust – shows how dicey the interlinked financial system is. Northern Rock was forced to turn to the Bank of England to bail it out as the firm’s ability to withdraw from financial institutions had been compromised by the $200 billion valueless US mortgage market, where risk has been sold on to such an extent internationally that any its anyone’s guess which bank will be hit next.
The Arab world would do well to hedge its bets on a more realistic debt market that is in line with GDP as well as trying to avoid the pitfalls that have beset online transactions.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Libya Goes Green

NOX (Pan-Arab men's magazine based in Jordan) October 2007

Libya is going green in a big way. Not green with jealousy or green as in Muammar’s Gadafi’s notorious (and rather amusing) Green Book or Libya’s green flag. Environmentally green. At least that’s the idea and why 200-plus journalists and guests from all over the world were flown to Libya for a 24-hour trip to witness the inauguration of the world’s largest sustainable area, a 5,500 square kilometre area in the Green Mountains.
Gadafi’s son, Saif Al-Islam, was on hand to stumble through his speech as well as the director of UNESCWA, plenty of security and the world’s press corps scrambling behind for good shots and quotable quotes. The whole trip was a carefully organized exercise in public relations, with guests kept in a bubble away from the reality of Libya.
Three private jets flew attendees in from London and Paris to the semi-military airport of La Braq, where 1960s era French Mirage jets dotted the edges of the runway.
No visa stamps were given on arrival and no Libyan currency was needed – it was as if none of us were actually there, but then few knew exactly where they were, other than 1,000 kilometers east of Tripoli and some 300 kilometers from the Egyptian border. All quite disorientating.
It would have been a perfect opportunity for hundreds of foreigners to disappear into the blue, á la Musa Al Sadr in 1978 when the Iranian-Lebanese imam mysteriously disappeared after allegedly boarding a flight from Tripoli to Italy.
But 2007 is not the 1970s, and Libya came in from the cold last year once Washington dropped the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, as it is formally called, from its list of rogue states. Gadafi’s Libya is now part of the so-called “free world.”
It was no real surprise then that Libyan officials were driven around in Hummers and guests were ferried to the “accommodation village” in over 40 identical Mercedes vans.
But driving through villages that appeared to have been hastily cleaned, the roads were lined with Libyan men and children – not a woman to be seen – goggling at the motley crew cruising past. Reminiscent of any rural area in the Middle East with its ubiquitous concrete block buildings, the only difference was in the “great leader” billboards - celebrating 38 years of Colonel Gadafi’s rule.
Under the watchful eye of local inhabitants and soldiers in blue camouflage uniforms (how do you blend into the scenery in blue? Yalla chebab, make like a pond!), the guests were ushered into a fenced-in area the size of a couple of playing fields next to the ancient Greek Temple of Zeus.

Temple of Zeus

The Temple of Zeus

The “accommodation village” consisted of two large tents decked out with white couches, and 150 smaller tents furnished with beds and electricity – all this for one night. A fire engine had even been lined up, along with firemen stationed with extinguishers at the end of each row of tents.
It was like a luxurious refugee camp minus bawling babies and swarms of flies, but not without night time interruptions – two Libyans, on separate occasions, stuck their head through the tent flaps at two in the morning, probably to check the author was where he was supposed to be and had not made a run for it.

Leaving the "tent city."

A Libyan hauls a bag from the tent city while the British ambassador to Libya walks behind.

The Big Idea

After the evening’s events, which had culminated in a dance by three local lovelies in their early forties shaking gravity defying bums and breasts, omelettes were served up the next morning by a team of Sri Lankan chefs – clearly no Libyan was up to such a complex culinary task.
But Saif Al-Islam’s plainclothes security certainly knew their stuff as attendees shuffled through the security cordon at the entrance to the ruined Hellenic city of Cyrene, a sprawling site of pillars, amphitheatres, mosaics, and ancient rubble known as the Athens of Africa.
The Greeks certainly chose locations well, with the area commanding cracking views of the Mediterranean. The PR firm obviously thought the same thing for Saif Al-Islam to sign the Cyrene Declaration in front of the world’s media.

The amphitheatre at Cyrene.

The ruins of Cyrene with the Med in the background.

The plan that Libya has is to turn the area, about half the size of Lebanon, into the Green Mountain Conservation and Development Authority (GMCDA). The idea is to learn from the mistakes of other Mediterranean countries and develop the country’s pristine coastline in a sustainable way without hundreds of cheaply built hotels springing up that would block the sea view and screw up the environment.
Environmental degradation in the Green Mountain area has got steadily worse over the past 15 years, with the water table falling from 200 metres below the surface to 600 metres, and forested area declining from half a million hectares to 180,000 hectares.
To curb such degradation the aim is to move towards a carbon neutral zone and build eco-tourism facilities that are built from local materials, use renewable energy, and blend into the surroundings (hopefully better than Libyan army uniforms).
“We have developed a technique so that if you look [at the hotel] it is like the rock face. It is about the principle of camouflage – tourism is great but the rules are, I don’t really want to see you,” said Stefan Behling, head of research and development of sustainable design at British architectural firm Norman Foster and Partners.

Architect Stefan Behling points out the environmental design of the project.

The GMCDA will initially consist of the Cyrene Grand Hotel, Spa Resort and Canyon Resort, a national park, archaeological conservation and fields for biomass and organic farming. All this is expected to create 190,000 jobs, said Saif Al-Islam.

“No politics, maybe next time”

Sitting down to be interviewed after his speech, Gadafi Jnr. was bombarded by questions. But before the grilling started the Libyan archaeology minister called out: “Interviews are strictly about the declaration.”
That didn’t stop some journalists from trying to sneak in a few bonus questions, particularly about democratization, but Saif Al-Islam carefully rebutted with “today we talk about ecology, environment and culture. No politics, maybe next time.”
Nevertheless, Libyan politics was present at the press conference when attendees were handed copies of local newspaper Quryna, which had photos of Gadafi Senior and Junior prominently displayed on the front page beneath a rather strange strap in English, “Comprehensive, miscellaneous, Libyan journal.”
More bizarrely the whole event wrapped up with a Libyan female army officer shrieking political slogans into a microphone about the great people of Libya and going on about “al haq,” the truth. The revolution clearly lives on, this time as part of Libya’s new ideology, eco-capitalism.
What was not mentioned at the ceremony was that the whole idea of the GMCDA was not the Libyan government’s but the brainchild of the Tatanakis, a wealthy Libyan family that made its money from drilling company Challenger Ltd. The Tatanakis are to finance a $300 million hotel at the GMCDA and stumped up the money for the whole PR trip.
Much of the excursion had such a degree of mystery, with several guests not saying whom they worked for or why they were there. And what the Princess of Albania, the Archduchess Valerie Salvador Habsburg-Lothringen, the strategic advisor to the Crown Prince of Qatar, and the head of development for the Prince of Monaco were doing there was never explained.
Presumably planning to invest some greenbacks in green obsessed Libya.


Saif Al-Islam, “the sword of Islam,” is Gadafi’s second son and has no official governmental role but is allegedly being groomed to be Gadafi Senior’s successor as “Guide of the Revolution.” A painter in his spare time, Saif Al-Islam is studying for a PhD at the London School of Economics and has raised eyebrows over criticisms of his father’s regime.
Earlier this year he famously said that the Bulgarian medics held by the Libyans for nine years for allegedly infecting hundreds of children with HIV had been tortured while imprisoned.
Curiously, some people believe that Gadafi Junior will play a major role in a future conflict between France and the Arabs, if a prophecy by the 16th century soothsayer Nostramadus is to be believed : “The Libyan Prince will be powerful in the West, the French will become so inflamed of Arabs, learned in letters he will agree to translate the Arab language into French.”
The only snag with this prediction is that Libya, despite its formal title, is no longer an Arab country after Colonel Gadafi stormed out of the Arab League in 2002. As Jr. told the BBC a few years ago: “The new Libya is black, because we are African now and we are Mediterranean at the same time.”
Saif Al Islam’s younger brother, Al-Saadi Gadafi, is known for having played football for Italian team U.C. Sampdoria and negotiating a 7.5% financial stake in Juventus.
- Photos by Paul Cochrane

Saudi Arabia's Media Influence

Arab Media and Society September 2006 -

When Saddam Hussein’s forces rolled across the border into Kuwait in 1990, Riyadh kept the Saudi population in the dark for three days before realizing that most Saudis had tuned into CNN to find out what was going on with their Gulf neighbor. (1) This rude awakening was the beginning of a fundamental turning point in the kingdom’s media strategy which until the early 1990s, had been largely confined to newspaper ownership.

Over the past 17 years the Saudi establishment has used its deep pockets to influence the region’s media and minds, morphing from an approach that paid off and intimidated media that ran negative reports on the kingdom to become one of the Middle East’s most influential media owners. (2)

As a result of the 1991 Gulf War, individuals close to the royal family decided to internationalize the kingdom’s media presence, launching the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) in London, backed by the then Saudi king’s in-law, Walid Ibrahim. (3)

“In the first Saudi era there was more of a tendency to buy individuals,” said As‘ad AbuKhalil, a politics professor at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of The Battle for Saudi Arabia. (4) “Before 1990 there were competing ownerships of Arab media – Libya, Iraq, UAE and Saudi Arabia. These were the major contenders. Ever since that time it is fair to say the media came entirely open for Saudi Arabia and the multiplicity [of media outlets] reflects the multiplicity of princes [that own media outlets].”

The Arab Radio and Television Network (ART) came hot on the heels of MBC, founded by Saudi mogul Saleh Abdullah Kamel in 1993, with a line up of entertainment, music and sport.

ART was followed in 1994 with the then Rome-based Orbit Communications Corporation (the Orbit pay-per view network is now based in Bahrain), a subsidiary of the Saudi Arabian Mawarid Group, which ran a BBC Arabic Television channel from 1994 until 1996 when it was abruptly pulled off air. (5)

In the same year that Orbit pulled the plug on BBC TV Arabic (which is set to restart soon, this time funded by the British taxpayer), ART’s Kamel bought 49% of the Cayman Islands-registered satellite channel Fada’iyya Al Lubnaniyya (the Lebanese Satellite Channel, LBC International), the pan-Arab version of the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) TV channel. (6)

In 2000, Kamel sold his shares to the world’s now thirteenth richest man, Saudi prince Al-Walid Bin Talal, for $100 million. Bin Talal is the Rupert Murdoch of media ownership in the Middle East, with his Kingdom Holding companies owning the region’s largest music label (Rotana Records), six music TV channels (Rotana Clip, Rotana Music, Rotana Gulf, Rotana Cinema, Rotana Tarab, Rotana Zaman), and a stake in Lebanese newspapers An Nahar and Ad Diyar in addition to his stake in LBCI (Bin Talal, incidentally, is the third largest shareholder in Murdoch’s News Corp., with 5.46% of voting shares). (7)

Prince Khalid bin Sultan is also a shareholder in LBC and owner of pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat. Due to his position as Assistant Minister of Defense for Military Affairs, bin Sultan’s role as a shareholder is significant as he can be considered a state actor, and consequently able to exert certain pressure over LBC to pander to the Saudi establishment.

The only other political outlet in which the Saudi government has a reportedly direct stake, other than newspapers and domestic media outlets which are subjected to draconian laws within Saudi Arabia,(8) is MBC’s all-news satellite channel Al Arabiya, which was established in 2003 to counter Qatar’s Al Jazeera, a channel Riyadh has disliked ever since it went on air in 1996, rankled by investigative reports on corruption in many Arab countries and the airing of Osama bin Laden video statements. The channel was seen as so controversial that at one point Saudi Arabia banned men from watching television at cafes to prevent public discussions of what was on Al Jazeera.

Although Saudi influence over the region’s newspaper business (particularly pan-Arab publications) still remains high, the significance of muzzling print press is not as great as it used to be. Like everywhere else on earth, the Middle East is tuning into TV news rather than picking up a paper.

“Newspapers are only important in so far as what intellectuals, journalists and politicians are reading. If you go to Arab countries and ask about a [newspaper] columnist, they won’t know who they are, but will know TV anchors,” said AbuKhalil.

The Big Issue

Saudi Arabia’s takeover of the region’s media is a reflection of what is occurring globally where a handful of multinational companies increasingly dominate the media. This spills over from entertainment into news coverage.

To Saudi Arabia such control is paramount in an era when the media is increasingly pervasive, because Riyadh’s political and economic clout - and the survival of the Royal family – depends on the kingdom retaining its position as a leading player in the region’s power politics. To retain this balance of power – held in the region by the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia against an ascendant Iran and non-governmental actors – informative and potentially damning news on the kingdom needs to be squashed.

Saudi Arabia’s approach to media under its control, and the harsh punishments on those that do not portray a rose-tinted view of the royal family and the kingdom, is mirrored in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which have similarly draconian media laws to retain monarchical power bases. Qatar can be considered somewhat of an exception with Al Jazeera, but when it comes to the channel applying the same exposure to governmental malfeasance and social issues in Doha as it does elsewhere in the region, Al Jazeera comes up short.

Although much of Saudi media ownership revolves around entertainment, as the Managing Editor of Beirut-based Middle East Broadcasters Journal, Habib Battah, pointed out: “MBC, Orbit, Rotana – all these companies have a big Saudi stake and are not really about Saudi Arabia, but about appealing to a pan-Arab audience,” that is perhaps the point, with Saudi shareholders - most linked to the royal family - being able to dictate what is, and what can be, aired to a pan-Arab audience, even if it is only entertainment.

As Marwan Kraidy of the American University noted: “Entertainment television is an active contributor to shaping what Arab publics discuss and do in both the social and political realms.” (9)

The fact that most channels in the region are not running at a profit is also indicative of certain motivations behind acquiring media outlets. “Channels are set up for different reasons, but one thing they’re not set up for is to make money,” said Hugh Miles, author of Al Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World. “A channel is a very economic way to influence people. Bang for your buck it’s much cheaper than guns. It is about controlling the discourse, and for Saudis about being in charge.”

Saudi Arabia’s strict domestic media laws have kept a lid on any criticism of the Saudi ruling elite in the country, and the kingdom uses its networks of ownership and informal influence to the best of its ability anywhere else. According to Said K. Aburish, author of The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud, many Arab and foreign journalists were on the payroll of Riyadh in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s to produce positive articles and commentaries, as well as counter coverage that goes against the agenda of Saudi Arabia.

As noted, that started to change in the 1990s –although the practice still allegedly goes on – with the Saudis’ acquiring whole networks. Such concentrated media ownership, in addition to the Saudis’ deep pockets and widespread economic and political influence, affects Arab journalists and the outlets that do not toe Saudi Arabia’s line.

“It is now a taboo in Arab culture to criticize Saudi. Even [Lebanon’s] Hizbullah media is careful, and in Qatar media criticism has been going down, it has been very sensitive… Whenever the Emir of Qatar meets [Saudi Arabian] King Abdullah, he always gets complaints about Al Jazeera,” AbuKhalil told Arab Media & Society.

Saudi influence is particularly apparent in more media independent Lebanon, which acts as a recruiting pool for many of the region’s journalists, editors and staff, and as such, means journalists will not run stories that could jeopardize their future careers, particularly if they aspire to work for the higher paying Gulf and Saudi networks.

“As a journalist today you cannot criticize Saudi – where would you work?” said AbuKhalil.

Equally, as some 40-70% of the region’s advertising is spent in Saudi Arabia (estimates differ), networks, TV channels and publications are not going to risk jeopardizing their cash flow by upsetting their prime advertising market in the region’s largest economy. Al Jazeera discovered this to their cost.

Al Jazeera was slated to be privatized in 2001, but according to Miles the channel’s attempts to raise enough advertising revenues were scuppered by Saudi pressure on major companies to pull advertisements from Al Jazeera or face advertising problems within the kingdom. “The Saudis have cost the channel dozens of millions in profits,” he said.

Judging by the fact that the channel is still state-funded and the lack of advertising on Al Jazeera today – largely confined to state-run Qatari companies – Riyadh succeeded in its aims, with Al Arabiya shooting ahead in advertising revenues.

No News is Good News

An inkling of how Saudi influence affects news coverage was given in an article by Ian Richardson, who was charged with setting up BBC Arabic TV’s news department during the two-years the channel ran on Orbit:

“During the short life of BBC Arabic Television, there were several angry ‘liaison meetings’ with Orbit and the guarantees of editorial independence proved to be a sour joke, only barely obscured by a thin smokescreen about the BBC's alleged failure to observe “cultural sensitivities” - Saudi code for anything not to the Royal Family's liking. When it became clear to Orbit and Mawarid that it had, in their terms, created a monster not prepared to toe the Saudi line, it was only a matter of time before there would be a final parting of the ways.”(10) As noted earlier, that parting of ways resulted in the channel being completely canned.

Richardson’s article was written a decade ago, but his insight regarding “editorial independence” was readily evident in early June this year when the London-based newspaper The Guardian broke the story of British Aerospace (BAE) and the British Ministry of Defense paying out some $2 billion to Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia as a sweetener to secure a $40 billion arms deal for BAE Systems back in 1985. The story caused a scandal in Britain and garnered coverage in the international media, but received relatively minimal coverage in the Middle East. The story was not given any airtime by Al Arabiya, with coverage largely confined to non-Saudi influenced outlets Al Jazeera and the London-based Arabic language newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi. (11)

“It was a huge story and should have got a lot of coverage as it affects the whole region, politically and economically. Minimal coverage seems to be a real injustice to the audience,” said Battah.

A further example of Saudi Arabia setting the media agenda, according to Reuters’ Andrew Hammond, is that “Arab media have largely gone along with a Saudi media campaign against Iran over its growing influence in the Arab world.” (12)

AbuKhalil also sees Saudi media - Al Arabiya in particular - as instrumental in stirring up fitna- – discord – between the Sunnis and Shias, which has been exacerbated by the occupation of Iraq, sectarian divisions in Lebanon, and the need for Saudi Arabia and Western allies to counter Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East and what certain commentators and politicians have called “the Shia crescent” and the "Sushi war."

Ultimately, Saudi influence over the media is having a negative effect on journalistic ethics, investigative reporting, balanced coverage and providing substantial information to the Arab public about issues that are important to the region.

Furthermore, with criticism and insightful stories about Saudi Arabia off limits to most Arab journalists, the problem is compounded by non-Arab journalists not able to take up the slack due to onerous visa regulations and limited access to sources, particularly for stories that relate directly to the state, which is notoriously secretive in handing out information.

As Aburish summarizes in his book The House of Saud: “The ability to influence the Western press comes on top of total control of Saudi internal media and the elimination of opposition within the pan-Arab media. The combined effect produces a false picture which everywhere overlooks, ignores or distorts the House of Saud’s misdeeds. In prospect is a world waking up to a country in flames and wondering why things have gone so far without anybody knowing about them.” (13)


1. Marwan M. Kraidy, “Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Changing Arab Information Order,” International Journal of Communication 1 (2007), 139-156, p. 141.

2. See Said K. Aburish, The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud (London: Bloomsbury, 1994), p. 216

3. MBC’s shareholder list has never been revealed. It is widely assumed that the Saudi royal family has a stake in the network led by chairman and CEO Sheikh Waleed Bin Ibrahim Al Brahim. In 2002, the network moved operations to Dubai’s Media City and production houses to Beirut, as well as expanding entertainment to MBC 2, MBC 3, MBC 4 and MBC Action MBC also owned United Press International (UPI) from 1994 until it sold the news service in 2000 to Reverend Sun Myung Moon's News World Communications.

4 AbuKhalil also has a popular blog –

5 Showtime Arabia, the region’s other leading pay-TV network, established in 1996, is not Saudi-owned. Kuwaiti company KIPCO has a 79% stake and the CBS Corporation has the remaining 21%.

6 Marwan M. Kraidy, “Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Changing Arab Information Order,” International Journal of Communication 1 (2007), 139-156, p. 143.

7 Bin Talal announced in August that Rotana is to be merged with LBCI, although the two institutions will remain financially independent - LBCI and Rotana to Merge Prior to Listing on Dubai Stock Market - 10 Aug 2007 -

8 An investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists on Saudi Arabia found that: 1) Government officials dismiss editors, suspend or blacklist dissident writers, order news blackouts on controversial topics, and admonish independent columnists over their writings to deter undesirable criticism or to appease religious constituencies 2) The country’s conservative religious establishment acts as a powerful lobbying force against enterprising coverage of social, cultural, and religious matters. The multi-layered religious sector includes official clerics, religious scholars, the religious police, radical revivalist preachers, and their followers 3) Compliant government-approved editors squelch controversial news, acquiesce to official pressures to tone down coverage, and silence critical voices -

9 Marwan M. Kraidy, “Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Changing Arab Information Order,” International Journal of Communication 1 (2007), 139-156, p. 139.

10 Ian Richardson, The Arabic TV “Monster”, first published in The Independent and Al-Quds Al-Arabi, April 1997. Available at:

11 Ian Black. “Latest allegations ignored by a submissive media,” The Guardian June 8, 2007

12 Andrew Hammond. “Saudi media empire tries to counter opposition,” Reuters, 9 August 2007

13 Said K. Aburish, The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud (London: Bloomsbury, 1994), p. 240

The 'Lebanonization' of the Iraqi Media: An Overview of Iraq's Television Landscape

Transnational Broadcasting Studies Issue 16, 2006 - now

The media landscape in Iraq has undergone a radical transformation since state-run Iraqi television abruptly went off air following the US-led invasion in March 2003. With no state television and the ownership of satellite dishes banned by the Baathist regime, Iraqis were, quite literally, starved for information. As a result, satellite dish sales skyrocketed in the months following the invasion, leading to one f the highest penetration rates in the world in just two years. From three national TV stations and 14 officially sanctioned Arb channels (the latter only available to a select few via card subscription in the two years before the war) many Iraqis suddenly found themselves with access to over 300 satellite channels and a handful of new Iraq-oriented networks. "These people had nothing, and now they are overwhelmed with satellite channels. It is a chance to get back to the real world," says Jean-Claude Boulos, head of Iraqi broadcaster Al Sumaria.

Today, the "real world" of the country's splintered political scene is only too well reflected in Iraq's 30-plus terrestrial and satellite channels, the layput of which increasingly mirrors the country's turbulant scene, with stations cropping up to represent every sectarian and political trend.(1)

With Iraq's TV menu growing increasingly sectarian, it is possible to draw a parallel wit Lebanon's highly sectarianized hodgepodge of channels--linked directly or loosely with political parties--which regularly report sect-specific news.(2) It is therefore perhaps fitting to speak of the "Lebanonozation" of Iraq'a media,(3) what with dozens of channels backed by politcal parties, such as the (Shiite) Islamic Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq's Al Furat TV and the (Sunni) Iraqi Islamist Party's Baghdad TV.

However, that said, Iraqi broadcasters have much more to contend with than sectarian rivalries. The current security situation is so bad that channels are spending up to 20 percent of their monthly budgets to protect personnel, employees are regularly unable to show up at work, and filming outside of studios has become hazardous and potentially deadly. Despite the overwhelming post-Saddam boom, the future is far from certain for media in Iraq.

External Influences

Governments led the way in establishing Iraq-orientated TV channels in the post-Saddam Hussein era. One of the first channels to start broadcasting with an Iraqi audience in mind was the Iranian government-backed, Arabic-language satellite TV network Al Alam (The World), which was launched during the invasion. The channel broadcasts throughout the Middle East (bureaus in Tehran, Baghdad and Beirut) but has given special focus to Iraq by hiring anchors and reporters with an Iraqi accent. “The reason for this is very simple actually, Iran is next door to Iraq,” says Faysal Abdel Sater, director of public relations at Al Alam. Indeed, for several months Al Alam was the only foreign TV channel Iraqis without satellite could watch, thanks to the network’s transmitters dotting the Iran-Iraq border.

One of Al Alam’s stated objectives is to “end the long-held monopoly of Western media in broadcasting news.” But alongside Al Alam and Pan-Arab satellite news giants Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, Western powers were quick to replace one state broadcaster with another in Iraq. As soon as Coalition Forces controlled Baghdad, the US-funded Arabic language station Radio Sawa started broadcasting in March 2003 along with voice of America Kurdish and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Arabic station, known as Radio Free Iraq.

In March 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) created the Iraqi Media Network (IMN), with the aim of establishing a public broadcaster similar to that of the BBC and America’s PBS. The original network contract (eventually totaling some eight contracts worth $108.2 million) was awarded to the San Diego-based Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) by the US Defense Contracting Command to set up 24-hour news channel Al Iraqiya, a sports channel, two FM radio stations and a national newspaper. SAIC was replaced by US-based Harris Communications with a one-year, $96 million contract in January 2004 that was later renewed for six months.(4)

Al Iraqiya initially struggled to gain credibility among Iraqis. It was regarded as the voice of the occupying forces because of its close relations with the CPA and a weekly address by US Administrator Paul Bremer. Iraqi journalists and cameramen also complained that despite the colossal amounts of money provided to contractors, little was trickling down to them. Most were kept on pre-war salaries of $120 a month rather than the $800 a month Western networks offered or a $1,000 a month private stations were reportedly paying reporters.(5)

But after initial teething problems, Al Iraqiya started gaining ground, with 50 percent of Iraqis interviewed in a February 2004 poll by Oxford Research International expressing confidence in the channel, up 11 points from November 2003. Al Sumaria’s Boulos said the now government-run Al Iraqiya (although still financed by the US taxpayer) is the most-viewed terrestrial channel, largely because it is broadcast terrestrially and available to 93 percent of Iraqis. “Al Iraqiya is better now, showing more of what is going on in Iraq,” says Hameed Alaa Hameed, a network engineer from Baghdad.

However, the supposed impartiality of US-linked media has once again come under scrutiny following revelations in December 2005 that the Pentagon was secretly feeding hundreds of positive news stories, written by American military personnel and private contractors, to the Iraqi press. US Army General George W. Casey was reported as saying in March that the US military will continue to pay Iraqi newspapers to publish pro-US articles, adding that an internal review had concluded that no US laws or Pentagon guidelines were being violated by the policy, which aims to counter what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called “a campaign of disinformation” by the Iraqi resistance.(6) Whether the US military also is feeding stories to Iraqi TV networks is not known, but with the freedom of print media unabashedly undermined it would seem far from conspiratorial to hypothesize that this is happening at some level in the broadcast media. “I don’t know if they are being given stories, but maybe some channels are getting footage, like Kurdish channels, as they are with the Americans,” says Hameed.

Certainly, state broadcaster Al Iraqiya seems to be given more privileged access by the Coalition forces than other channels . During a joint US and Iraqi military operation on the northern city of Tal Afar in late September 2005, Al Iraqiya was the only non-American camera team allowed to accompany the troops, according to Al Jazeera’s editor-in-chief Ahmed Al Sheikh.

The Iraqi Media Network's Al Iraqiya was not the United States’ only attempt to counteract the popularity of Pan-Arab news channels in Iraq, or in the rest of the region for that matter. In February 2004 Alhurra (The Free One) was established, and shortly after, in April, sister channel Alhurra Iraq began broadcasting. Alhurra has had moderate success around the region, but reached into only 15 percent of Iraqi households in June 2005, according to Ipsos-Stat.

For the UK, Britain’s BBC World Service Trust joined the fray fairly late, launching Al Mirbad TV and radio in August 2005 in southern Iraq. According to Abir Awad, a project developer for the World Service Trust, the channel is to provide independent media in southern Iraq. “The media in Iraq used to be very Baghdad centric so we aimed at a regional audience,” she says. The World Service Trust is an independent charity within the World Service that has developed media in other war-torn countries such as Kosovo and Afghanistan, although Al Mirbad is the Trust’s biggest project to date. The British government’s Department for International Development is providing Al Mirbad with $11.81 million for the next two years, after which the broadcaster will seek funding from international donors and advertisers. The Basra-based channel—“the station with a southern vibe”—is managed by Iraqis and currently produces four hours of original content a day. In addition to helping establish channels, Western governments have also been working to train Iraqi media workers. The BBC and USAID have both been involved in training programs for Iraqi journalists on balance and ethics.

TV Journalism Turns Deadly

The invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq has resulted in the deadliest conflict for the news media in recent history. At least 67 journalists and 24 media support workers have been killed and 39 journalists kidnapped since the invasion. Five of the kidnapped journalists—four Iraqis and one Italian—were killed, and the others released. Many journalists also have been wounded covering the conflict, as well as harassed and imprisoned by the Coalition and Iraqi authorities. The Iraqi Media Network, which includes national broadcaster Al Iraqiya, has suffered the greatest losses, followed by Dubai-based Al Arabiya, with nine journalists and six support workers killed.(7)

“Everyday when I ask my guys to do a story it is a nightmare for me because I am worried what will happen,” says Nabil Al Khatib, executive editor at Al Arabiya, which has lost 11 staff.(8) (See Al Khatib's interview wih TBS in this issue)

Al Khatib believes the security situation is having a negative impact on news reporting. “If we are talking about serious coverage of an area, a troubled area like Iraq, you need to be able to move freely and go to different areas and pass on your impressions to the public. But to compile a decent, balanced and accurate story is something that most of the time is not doable. It is not impossible to work there but it takes time and a lot of energy that is in contradiction with the nature of news for a news channel.”

Among Al Khatib’s concerns with operating in Iraq is a controversial issue that all news channels in Iraq grapple with—embedding journalists with Coalition forces.

Al Khatib says he has two concerns with embedding correspondents, firstly that the US military request correspondents to be attached to a unit for a lengthy period, often weeks at a time, for security reasons before military operations. Al Khatib says that the channel cannot afford to have correspondents away on assignments for essentially an unknown period. Furthermore, Al Khatib says that with most assignments carried out by Iraqis, locals put themselves at risk if they embed with Coalition forces. “If he is seen with the Americans and comes back, it would be difficult to explain to people that it was just an assignment. People might be aggressive because he was embedded,” he explains.

Al Khatib’s concerns are not to be taken lightly. Of the 91 journalists and media workers killed in Iraq, 80 percent are Iraqi and some 60 percent were targeted for assassination.(9)

“The second concern is that we are afraid of sending someone to be embedded to only cover the American side and then we fail to cover the insurgent side, to be balanced. For CNN or other American networks they don’t care about being balanced or not. We cannot do that and we won’t do that,” he says.

Regulating or Restricting Broadcasters?

As if broadcasting in Iraq is not difficult enough, Iraq’s interim Governing Council set up a Higher Media Commission in the summer of 2003 to regulate and license the burgeoning TV market. In the September of that year the commission barred Pan-Arab news channels Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya from covering the Governing Council’s activities for two weeks, claiming the networks promoted political violence and the killing of members of the council and the Coalition, and broadcast “terrorists terrorizing Iraqis.”

By July 2004, the Iraqi National Communications and Media Commission (INCMC) had been established, laying down rules and editorial standards for program content of television and radio broadcasters.

The commission, closely modeled on the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the UK’s communications’ regulator OfCom, first bared its teeth when it banned Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera for a month in August 2004 for “incitement to hatred” after broadcasting stories on the Iraqi resistance. Al Arabiya was back on air after a month, but Al Jazeera has remained blacklisted ever since. Al Jazeera’s editor in chief, Ahmed Al Sheikh, believes the decision was politically motivated. “It was a joint US-Iraqi decision. If they wanted to have reversed that decision they could have,” he says.

Al Jazeera has experienced such bans in the past in Iran, Jordan, Kuwait and Palestine, but the Iraqi ban has particularly aggravated the channel. “I think the people behind the closure are those who don’t like the truth, no more, no less. They don’t like Al Jazeera,” says Al Jazeera presenter and producer Mohammed Al Bouniry. “By shutting down Al Jazeera they will have no problem to shut others down.”

However, no other channel has been banned in Iraq and other broadcasters do not share the same grievances as Al Jazeera. Al Diyar’s Al Yasiri is supportive of the commission: “We don’t have any form of censorship. At this point in time, Iraq is the freest country in the Arab world for the media.”

But Star TV Network’s Saad Al Saraf believes the commission is not living up to its potential. “It could be bigger and wider, and just revolves around one person (Siyamend Othman). It has not successfully tackled issues in media bias, such as during the elections,” he says. Indeed, there seems to be a sort of "look the other way" approach to enforcing the commission’s rules, such as the ban on "spreading sectarian, racial and religious sedition and strife."

Broadcasting Sectarian Strife?

A cursory glance at the backing and orientation of many channels reveals the extent to which sectarian issues are driving broadcasting, which can only exacerbate sectarian proclivities that are increasingly apparent in Iraq.

Al Salam TV relies on funding from Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, Ghadeer TV on the Higher Council of the Islamic Revolution, Al Masar TV on the Islamic Da'awa Party, and Ahlul Bayt TV (The House of the Prophet Muhammad) on the patronage of Shiite cleric Ayatollah Hadi Al Moderassi. Baghdadia TV is considered a moderate Sunni channel and Baghdad TV, run by the Iraqi Islamist Party, is known as "Baathist TV" among Shiites who criticize its pro-Sunni agenda. Afaq TV (Horizons) shows video footage in support of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party and Muqtada Al Sadr.

Babil TV reportedly offers programming in support of the Sunni Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, and Biladi TV runs programs in support of the United Iraqi Alliance.

Al Furat (The Euphrates) is reportedly backed by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and supported the Unified Iraqi Coalition during the elections, which has the backing of Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. The channel's director general, Arshad Tawfiq, was a former Iraqi ambassador to Spain and a former Baath Party official, and is now a member of the Supreme Council for National Salvation. The station opposes the presence of the Coalition forces in Iraq, and refers to Iraqis killed by Coalition troops as “martyrs.”

As desired above. the Coalition-created Al Iraqiya channel initially was lambasted as a pro-American mouthpiece, but since it was turned over to the Iraqi government is widely viewed as a sectarian, Shiite channel.

Al Bazzaz’s Al Sharqiya is considered a more toned channel, although overt support was shown for former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in the recent elections and some view the channel as pro-Sunni. An Iraqi who worked for Al Sharqiyah in Dubai, who did not wish to disclose his name, told TBS that many of the channel’s employees do not like Shiites, a bias that is reflected in the channel’s employment policies. “They kicked me out when they knew I was Shia. It is a pro-Sunni channel,” he says.

The channel was mockingly dubbed “Al Baathiya” upon launch because of Al Bazzaz’s personal history as the head of the Baath regime’s national news agency until 1992. Al Bazzaz is also rumored to have political ambitions and was alleged to have received millions of dollars from the Saudi government to launch the Iraqi Azzaman newspaper in a British high court hearing last year.(10)

Ethnic minorities also have a political media presence. Ashur TV, which represents the Assyrian Democratic Movement, receives 50 percent of its funding from the party and the rest from supporters around the world. The Iraqi Turkoman Front funds Turkomaneli TV. Baghdad’s Shafak TV is backed by the Kurdish authorities, Kurdistan TV by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and ATB TV is linked to the Kurdistan Communist Party. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, operates Al Hurriyah TV and PUK TV. KurdSat TV reportedly supports the PUK.

The extent to which sectarianism is affecting Iraq’s media content, particularly news, was evident following the February 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. Sunni-orientated channels such as the Iraqi Islamic Party’s Baghdad TV, which has no correspondents in either of the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, focused on Sunnis attacked in retaliation for the bombing, while Shiite-run channels Al Furat and Al Iraqiya devoted coverage to the damage to the shrine and the plight of Shiites under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Al Furat reportedly aired slogans telling Shiites to stand up for their rights.(11)

Even Al Jazeera has come under fire from Iraq’s sectarianism, with Shiites taking to the streets in December 2005 to protest against the channel for broadcasting a remark, made by a guest on a talk show, arguing that religious authority Ayatollah Sistani should stay out of politics. BBC analyst Magdi Abdelhadi believes the demonstrations were a "testimony to the tense relationship between the Shias and the Sunni Arabs. Attacking Al Jazeera becomes a symbolic salvo in the simmering hostility" of Iraq.(12)

These cases do not differ radically from Lebanon’s broadcasting environment. In Lebanon, the TV landscape reflects that of the sectarian political system: Mustaqbal (Future), owned by the Hariri family, is a Sunni channel, LBC is Christian, Al Manar is backed by Shiite political party Hezbollah, and NBN is partially backed by Shiite parliamentary speaker and head of the Amal movement Nabih Berri.(13)

The sectarian nature of Lebanese television was apparent last year when over a million Lebanese thronged to Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square on March 14 to demonstrate against the Syrian occupation. Instead of broadcasting the event Al Manar TV re-broadcast footage of "the Shia" demonstration in downtown that occurred on March 8. Conversely, although LBC and Al Mustaqbal did cover the March 8 demonstration, far more footage was given to ‘their’ demonstration on March 14, repeating the images again and again in the weeks and months that followed.

These three dominant Lebanese channels, along with NBN, are in many senses leftovers from the civil war period, when radio stations were backed by the separate factions before making the leap to television broadcasting.(14) Iraq, on the other hand, has made this transition during a devastating occupation and at a more macro level in line with its population’s own demographics.

At least in Lebanon’s case, such media publicly sustains already deeply rooted sectarian divisions, albeit with greater sensitivity towards other religions than in the past.(15) But in Iraq’s case, where the media is caught up in political turmoil, violence, and a renewed sectarianism that had been kept at bay by Saddam Hussein’s regime, the struggle for viewers—and voters—is perhaps even more acute than in Lebanon, where sectarianism has been the status quo well before the 1860 civil war, and is formerly enshrined in the country’s constitution (1943). After all, the political and social sectarianism of Iraq is, like the multiple political party scene and media landscape, a very new arena that will no doubt change alongside political developments. Channels may fare as their political backers do, sink or swim. But with no effective or impartial national public TV channel—the moribund TeleLiban is hardly watched, and Al Iraqiya favors Iraq’s Shiite government—both Lebanon and Iraq’s media will remain driven by sectarianism.

Although the Iraqi market is likely to see more channels being launched—the INCMC reportedly has 20 applications pending—broadcasting will continue to be a struggle in the absence of stability. And for the foreseeable future, funding for channels is likely to remain primarily in the hands of political and religious groups rather than the commercial or state sectors, much like in Lebanon.


1. BBC Monitoring puts the number of Iraqi TV channels at 27, but new channels are being launched. The Iraqi Media Commission did not respond to emails or phone calls to clarify the exact number of channels currently operating and how many TV applications the commission has received. The only exception to the analogy of Lebanonization is the armed resistance, which does not have its own TV channel, though insurgetn groups do prouce their own video and audio materials to post on the Internet or distribute to mainstream media. Also, certain channels that are vocally opposed to the US-led occupation air footage filmed by rebels, such as tapes of kidnap victims and attacks on convoy troops.

2. To get an equitable view of Lebanon’s daily local news you have to tune in to at least three TV channels which, incidentally, are conveniently timed to allow viewers to do exactly that.

3. ‘Lebanonization’ has been used by media commentators to describe the growing sectarian divide between Iraqis, implying an impending civil war on sectarian lines, as occurred in Lebanon between 1976 to 1990. However, although the term fails to take into account the reasons for war in Lebanon, along with other conditions, which vary quite radically from contemporary Iraq, on a political-media level the term seems quite apt.

4. Harris refused to comment on their activities in Iraq. The Harris website reported: ‘The year-ago quarter (2005) benefited from $22 million in revenue from the Iraqi Media Network (IMN) program. Sequentially, revenue increased 3 percent.’

5. Gordon Robinson. ‘Rebuilding Iraqi Television: A Personal Account,’ Iraqi Media Developments Newsletter, Issue 28, December 15 2004 - January 2005

6. Mark Mazzetti. ‘Military Will Keep Planting Articles in Iraq,’ Los Angeles Times, March 4, 2006.

7. Committee to Protect Journalists press release, March 17 2006

8. Three Al Arabiya employees, including correspondent Atwar Bahjat, were killed in February, 2006 by a unidentified group outside of Samarra. Regarding the other eight fatalities, five died in a car bomb that targeted Al Arabiya’s bureau in Baghdad, and three were killed by US troops. Reporter Jawad Khathem was the target of an armed kidnap attempt that paralyzed him from the waist down.

9. Committee to Protect Journalists press release, March 17 2006

10. David Pallister, ‘Media mogul accused of running Saudi-funded propaganda campaign,’ The Guardian, January 26, 2005

11. Louise Roug, ‘Unfair, Unbalanced Channels’ Los Angeles Times, March 28, 2006

12. Magdi Abdelhadi. Iraqi Shias Slam Arab TV Channel, December 2005 -

13. Murr TV (MTV), owned by Greek Orthodox politician Gabriel Murr, was supposed to be re-launched in 2005 after the government shut the station down in 2002. There have also been rumors over the past year of former General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement setting up a channel - Orange TV.

14. The Hizbullah backed Al Manar TV channel was launched in 1991 to promote the movement’s role in fighting the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in 2000.

15. For instance LBC now takes Ramadan into consideration for its programming schedule, and hired, for the first time, a Shiite journalist for a documentary series two years ago.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The need for transparency in the Gulf oil markets

Commentary – Executive magazine August 2007

While the Middle East makes baby steps towards implementing greater financial transparency, accountability and the rule of law, the region’s best-known commodity – oil – lacks transparency in the way tenders are allocated and, more disturbingly, in actual reserve estimates.
Information on oil, the lynchpin of the Gulf economies and the catalyst for numerous conflicts, coups and much other skulduggery in the Middle East, is being held back from not only the people of the region, but also the very markets that rely on that energy.
The most glaring examples are Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
In Iraq the issue is over the proposed oil law, which would give multinational oil companies such as Conoco, ExxonMobil and Chevron first dibs on developing the country’s oil fields under contracts of up to 30 years.
Iraqi politicians have complained that they don’t know what is going on with oil resources as the formulation of the law is being stage managed by a US consultancy firm. Furthermore, in a recent poll carried out by Custom Strategic Research in Iraq, only 4% of poll respondents felt they have been given “totally adequate” information about the oil law while a further 20% describe information provision as “somewhat adequate,” and 76% as “inadequate”. The poll also indicates that Iraqis are not happy with the sector being developed by foreign companies, with 63% replying they would prefer Iraq’s oil to be developed and produced by Iraqi public sector companies.
The need for greater transparency in allocating oil tenders and the drawing up of the new oil law – the bedrock for future development of the country – is essential for Iraqis to decide on how their oil wealth is to be used.
Of greater concern to the global markets are the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil producer and exporter. Future supply projections are largely based on the fact that Saudi Arabia will be producing as much as 20 to 25 million barrels of oil per day (bpd) within the next two to three decades. Yet current production capacity is 11.3 million bpd, around half of that estimate.
Although Saudi Arabia is carrying out several multi-billion dollar projects to raise capacity to 12.5 million bpd by 2009, such an increase is not enough, certainly to prove to the world that the kingdom has the reported 261 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. That information, on how much each field contributes to total oil reserves, is treated as a state secret. The problem is compounded by Riyadh not allowing third-party verification of their ability to deliver. Additionally, there is speculation that the kingdom’s three most important fields, which have been producing at high rates for over 50 years and require a staggering 12 million barrels per day of water to be injected to create pressure for extraction, are reaching the end of their shelf life.
Saudi Arabia assures us that it can meet projected targets – which, to its credit, it has always done – but unless national oil company (NOC) Aramco provides more information on reserves, it will be hard to know how long they can effectively meet demand.
Such secrecy among NOCs is somewhat understandable, but not helpful in making future projections in a time of rapid global economic growth or holding NOCs– the dominant energy firms in the region – more accountable to their citizens.
Equally, a lack of transparency is also limiting NOCs’ access to external capital that could help raise capacity and resultantly meet surging world demand. And with the International Energy Agency (IEA) projecting that over the next 30 years some $2.2 trillion in new investments will be needed in the global oil sector to meet surging demand, much of this cash will be destined for the Middle East - but into whose pockets and for what ends?
There is an exception however to the secrecy so predominant in the Gulf: Bahrain. In 2005, Bahrain streamlined its oil operations from three authorities into one, the National Oil and Gas Authority (NOGA), with the head of NOGA, Abdul-Hussain Ali-Mizra, a technocrat, also the Minister of Oil and Gas Affairs. Such an approach has given NOGA greater flexibility in meeting both domestic and international demand, attracting capital, and helping to remove bureaucratic obstacles that hampered growth. All tenders are now put online for companies to bid for.
“Oil and gas has been very secretive in the past but we want to change that as there is nothing to hide,” Ali-Mizra told me earlier this year. “Countries should be transparent and responsible, so we are setting the benchmark.”
With Bahrain relatively low on the global energy supply rankings, Manama has perhaps the least to lose in being transparent (we all know its supplies are running out), but Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries would do well to take a leaf out of Bahrain’s book to be more forthcoming in information on tenders and reserve estimates. The markets demand it, and the people deserve it.