Friday, December 10, 2010

Naoshima Art Island Part 1 - Benesse Art Museum

One of two giant pumpkins by Kusama Yayoi on Naoshima, this one by the ferry port

Part One of a two part series on Naoshima “art island” in Japan's Inland Sea, around one hour from Okayama by train and ferry.

By Paul Cochrane in Naoshima for Aishti magazine

Viewing art is more often than not an urban activity. Galleries and museums don't tend to be tucked away in forests or on small islands only accessible by ferry. But a remote location showcasing artistic masterpieces has the air of a pilgrimage about it as well as providing a more relaxed setting to ponder and appreciate the art you have traveled so far to see.

There was certainly a feeling of anticipation in the air as visitors boarded the ferry for the 15 minute ride from the mainland, around five hours by train from Tokyo, to the island of Naoshima in Japan's Inland Sea.

This is not a place that is on most visitors' to-do list when visiting Japan, like including an afternoon to tour the Louvre when in Paris. Naoshima attracts the artistically inclined, whether architecture students staying at youth hostels near the port or well-heeled art aficionados checked in at one of the four hotels run by the Benesse Corporation.

Naoshima is an island that had a dwindling population as the youth left for the high-tech cities before new life was breathed into it 20 years ago by Benesse, which had a growing collection of modern art in need of show casing.

Established in the early 1990s, the Benesse Art Site Naoshima has evolved from one art museum, the Benesse House Museum, to house a second museum, Chichu (see part two), and the Art House Project, where artists transform spaces into artworks while restoring old buildings.

In fitting with its “art island” moniker, works of outdoor art are dotted around the coast, including the giant pumpkin sculptures by Kusama Yayoi that have become symbols of Naoshima. Yayoi's bright red pumpkin at the fishing port signals the island's artistic bent, while the yellow pumpkin near the Benesse museum stands in colorful contrast to the rugged coastline and maritime backdrop.

Even the island's
sento – public bath – is a fully functional, if somewhat surreal, art installation designed by Shinro Ohtake called "I ♥ Yu" – a word play on you and yu, which means hot water in Japanese. On top of the wall separating the men and women's bathing sections is a stuffed Indian elephant.

The Benesse House Museum designed by award-winning architect Ando Tadao merges two different functions – museum and hotel – in one building, with the art collection open to the public during the day and accessible at any time to hotel guests.

As much a piece of art as the works on display, the museum is set over three floors that utilizes natural lighting, minimalism and curves to highlight 38 paintings and art works. Set into the side of a hill with a panoramic view of the sea, art work is visible from inside and outside the museum while Tadao's design fuses nature and architecture to encourage what it means to benesse, Latin for 'live well'.

Displaying some of Japan's best contemporary art, the museums also houses work by Jasper Johns, David Hockney, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Yukinori Yanagi.

In an almost cavalier attitude for a museum, the painting on the wall of its restaurant is by Jean Michel Basquiat. Yet when on an art island, if you can visit a museum in the middle of the night and bathe among art, why not eat among art?

Photographs by Paul Cochrane

Naoshima Art Island Part 2: Chichu Art Museum

Walter De Maria's spheres on display outside Benesse Art Museum

By Paul Cochrane in Naoshima for Aishti Magazine

A remote island in Japan's Inland Sea is not where you would expect to find a gallery devoted to Claude Monet's “Water Lily” series. Nor to be the location of what can only be described as a sublime museum experience.

Located five hours by train from Tokyo, the Benesse Art Site Naoshima has been delivering the unexpected to visitors since it was established in the early 1990s, with a modern art museum featuring works by the likes of Jasper Johns and David Hockney, outdoor art and art house installations (see part one).

To make the journey that more enticing, Benesse Corporation, the brains behind the “art island” concept, embarked on a second project in 2004, the Chichu Art Museum.

Created to “consider the relationship between nature and human beings,” Chichu holds the work of the Impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926) and American artists Walter De Maria (born 1935) and James Turrell (b. 1943).

In displaying just three artists, Benesse found the right balance that evades so many museums: not enough to experience or too much art to process – often a problem at those large metropolitan museums.

Making this experience possible was architect Tado Ando's stubborn refusal to have an exterior design rising out of the ground like some kind of monument. Instead the architecture is limited to an underground structure of concrete, steel, glass and wood that uses natural light to light up passageways and galleries.

Ando's minimalist style lets the viewer interact with the sky as the light changes and the clouds move, a theme running throughout the galleries. In the Monet gallery, the overhead natural light illuminates the five paintings of water lilies and is accentuated by the room being entirely white, as if to push the lilies off the canvas into 3D life.

Turrell's work fuses with Ando's design. “Open Sky” uses LED and Xenon lamps to steer the gaze skywards to consider light as art itself, while “Open Field” takes the eyeballs to the limits of light and spatial awareness.

Using fluorescent and neon tube lighting, Turrell lit up a room that is accessed by several broad marble steps within an underground gallery. After visitors have been advised by an attendant to walk slowly forward once inside the low-ceilinged room, the shoe-less visitor inches along in a white light that makes the mind lose the sensory perception of where the room's walls begin and end. It is an unforgettable example of interactive installation art.

In the spaces between galleries, the subterranean setting makes light increase and decrease in proximity to windows, slits and doorways. Time and the cycle of the day are apparent.

De Maria's “Time/Timeless/No Time” is a space defined by specific measurements so that an oblong-shaped window in the ceiling makes the work constantly change from sunrise to sunset. Dominated by a 2.2 meter diameter sphere and 27 wooden sculptures applied with gold leaf, the sky is reflected on the dark sphere and moves as the viewer walks around the cavernous room.

Outside the museum, as the visitor enters and leaves, a garden planted with flowers, plants and trees cherished by Monet at his garden in Giverny sets the impression for a museum that is at one with its natural surroundings.

For further information go to

Architects, product designers, students, art lovers and a Gaijin journalist at the Kowloon hostel in Naoshima - courtesy of Yosuke Shimano

Photographs by Paul Cochrane

“The East Moves West”

Asia’s ascendancy shifts economic clout in the region

Book review - Executive magazine

Labeling this region as the “Middle East” or the lesser used “Near East,” is standard practice in the West, but the region can equally be called “West Asia,” the opposite end of a vast landmass that spreads from Vladivostok and Shanghai all the way to the Bosporus and the Suez Canal. This designation makes sense given the area’s historic ties and the ancient Silk Road trading routes.

Today there is a new Silk Road, with flourishing two-way traffic between the rest of Asia and the continent’s eastern end, particularly Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Iran. In Geoffrey Kemp’s book “The East Moves West,” he sets out the case for this burgeoning relationship and where it is likely to go. Kemp, an American foreign-affairs think-tank director, adeptly steers the reader through the ties that bind Asia together, from the geo-strategic importance of Central Asia to the big players: China, India, Pakistan, Japan and South Korea, covering economics, energy, politics, military ties and infrastructure projects.

It is a relationship that is clearly centered on energy supplies, with some 40 percent of China’s oil coming from the GCC, India receiving 45 percent of its oil from the Middle East, and Japan reliant on the region for 90 percent of its oil. Such reliance on the region’s resources has resulted in mutual dependence.

With Eastern economies in ascendancy while the West hobbles along, this relationship is set to flourish, with significant economic and political ramifications. Energy dependence on Iran, for instance, has been crucial in allowing Tehran to survive the economic sanctions imposed by America and Europe to curb its nuclear program.

The big question, as Kemp sees it, is whether Eastern Asia’s role in the region will grow beyond the traditional buyer-seller relationship. Economically, it has started to change over the past five years, with Asian countries inking contracts worth $500 billion for infrastructure projects in the Middle East, while the GCC has invested more than $250 billion in East and South East Asia. Both East and West Asia want more.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have adopted a “look east” approach for market growth, while New Delhi considers the GCC, to quote India’s former commerce minister, “as part and parcel of India’s economic neighborhood.” The statistics only reinforce this. For India, the economic relationship with the GCC is more important than with the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the United States, totaling $86.9 billion (excluding oil) in 2008-2009.

The UAE is India’s jewel in the GCC crown, the country’s second biggest export destination and the Emirates’ largest importer, accounting for a third of its trade in the Middle East. With Indians making up 33 percent of the UAE’s population and 50 percent of its workforce (of which 25 percent are unskilled workers, 50 percent semi-skilled and 25 percent professionals), it’s no wonder the UAE labor minister said in 2007: “God forbid something happens between us and India and they say, ‘Please, we want all our Indians to go home’... our airports would shut down, our streets, construction…”

With the US flailing in Iraq and Afghanistan and its credibility shot in much of Asia, East Asia seems set to be the new player at the table. But so far the Asian nations have largely refrained from the political arena of the region’s western extremity.

As Kemp notes: “How long they can sustain their hands-off approach is questionable if…they get drawn into the messiness of Middle East politics at a time when the US becomes disillusioned by the burdens of hegemony.”

There are a lot of “ifs” in the book, but given all the certainties proclaimed by Washington of late in its future prognosis for the region, Kemp refreshingly gives plenty of room for thought about the potentials of the new Silk Road.

Middle East Confectionery Manufacturers – Expect Local Expansion

Confectionery Production magazine

By Paul Cochrane in Beirut and Damascus

The Middle East's confectionery market (the Gulf, the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Israel) was valued at USD$113 billion in 2009, while annual chocolate sales exceeded USD$4.2 billion, according to USA-based TNS Media Intelligence. While multinationals such as Cadbury, Masterfoods and Kraft are dominating, local manufacturers are expanding to retain and aiming for increased market share. These low to mid-priced confectioners have a strong national and regional market presence but there is less potential for expansion into the highly competitive and more mature European markets. There is, however, potential for expansion in the super premium chocolate category, which has grown over the past decade, particularly in the affluent Gulf economies.

Lebanon's Patchi produces a variety of high-end and decorated chocolates that are primarily sold in the Middle East through Patchi's deluxe boutiques, followed by the Far East, Azerbaijan and Europe. This year the company opened branches in South Africa, Moscow and two new branches in London in addition to a branch within Harrods. Producing some 4,000 tonnes of chocolate every year distributed through its 140 global outlets, Patchi plans to expand into the European market through franchises, says Nizar Choucair, Patchi’s founder and chairman. This is likely to lead to a further diversification of its offerings due to regional differences in chocolate demand. “Most of the Arab countries prefer milk chocolate while in Lebanon and Europe, it is mostly dark chocolates,” notes Choucair. The company has a very modern production process that includes Swiss technology and it uses no eggs, gelatin, preservatives or artificial ingredients are used, while Patchi has 30 fillings, including almonds, pistachios and hazelnuts to fruit dragees.

Re-attaining global status

Regional competitor Ghraoui, based in Damascus, Syria, has been in the confectionery business since 1931, producing over 120 types of confectionery, including a wide range of chocolates, fawakeh mujaffafa (Arabic for dried fruits), Turkish delights, nougats and marzipan.

Every year we try to introduce a few new products, and keep the product line young and fresh,” says Mohamed Midani, Vice President of Ghraoui.

Ghraoui won gold medals for its products in 1937 in Paris and in 1939 in New York, but its international presence waned until 1996 when a new, state of the art factory was established. Over the past decade Ghraoui has worked to reposition itself in the Middle East and abroad, winning the prestigious Paris 2005 Salon du Chocolat's “Prix d’Honneur”.

Currently, Ghraoui has 18 stores in Syria and the region, including Jordan, Kuwait and Dubai. “We are in discussions with franchises in the region and looking to Europe, North America and the Far East. We are trying to reattain the global status of the company,” explains Midani. Sales are evenly split between domestic consumption and export, but Ghraoui aims to have exports account for 80 to 90 percent of all business.

With higher purchasing power in the Gulf and Europe, these will be focus markets. “We are exporting to France and Europe, and the European Union partnership agreement will help that as we are paying a high amount of tax,” said Midani. Boxes of chocolates retail for Euro 70-80 per kilogram in France, he adds.

To bolster export competitiveness, Ghraoui is applying for ISO and HACCP accreditation over the next year. “We try to do as much as possible of the A to B supply chain, we make our own chocolate mass as we buy our cocoa from west Africa origin, while other ingredients such as fruits and nuts are bought fresh directly from the farmers and processed in house to prepare the fillings used in our products,” says Midani. “High quality luxury products from Syria is not what people have in mind, so it draws a bit of attention,” he adds.


Money is certainly to be made by quality confectioners in the Gulf. In the United Arab Emirates, the chocolate market was valued at USD$148.7 million in 2008 by AC Nielsen, with strong growth in the premium range to cater to wealthy citizens and expatriate demand. In addition to the multinationals, some 20 confectionery companies are based in the emirates.

The UAE-based La Ronda, owned by Notions Trading, has a production capacity of some 3,000 metric tonnes and has a 5-15 percent market share in its chocolate categories in the Gulf and Levant.

Our most popular item is Chocodate, a product discovered through trial and error many years ago and that is a combination of almonds, dates and chocolate,” says Razan Al Masri, Marketing and Communications manager at Notions. “Since production started 15 years ago, the owner insisted on not widening the range, so it's like Ferrero Roche in that we have one major product, although we offer collections of that product,” she adds.

Each chocodate weighs 10 grams, coming in 500 gram boxes, a three piece box of 33 grams, 90 grams, 180 grams and 800 grams, which sells for USD$13.60 (50 AED). Chocodates are exported to Europe, the United States, South America and Africa, while their main regional competitor is Masterfoods' Galaxy Jewels Assorted Chocolates box.

With plans to moves to the Dubai Investment Park to establish a new headquarters and purpose built factory by year end, La Ronda is to aggressively expand over the next five years.

Our plans right now, after the summer, is to have a more constant exporting schedule to Europe, particularly to Britain and Germany,” says Al Masri.

EU offers access

Confectionery manufacturers in the Middle East are not only ideally placed geographically to sell their products to the rich European Union (EU) market, they are assisted by a series of free trade agreements either in place, or in the works.

Turkish confectioners can take advantage of a customs union with the EU which covers processed foods (although some restrictions and tariffs apply for unprocessed ingredients).

An association agreement with Jordan will establish a free trade area between it and the EU by 2014. Under an EU-Lebanon association agreement, many Lebanese confectionery products already enter the EU duty free. The European Commission has proposed the negotiation of trade.

The European Commission has proposed the negotiation of a trade and cooperation agreement with Iraq. There is currently no EU trade deal in place with Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, ratifications await new free trade deals between the EU and Egypt, Syria and Israel – all of which would liberalise the trade in confectionery products between the EU and these countries.

Photographs courtesy of Ghraoui

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Gold’s glorious 2010

Commentary - Executive magazine

It's been a glittering year for gold globally, with a Troy ounce (31.1 grams) rising $300 to a record $1,424.60 in November, before backing down slightly into the high $1,300s as Executive went to print. And it’s been just as bright a year for the precious metal in the Middle East. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) re-checked its accounts to find it had 180 tons more than it originally thought, Lebanon's central bank reserves appreciated by more than $2 billion to close on $13 billion, and gold bugs in the United Arab Emirates were given the novel option to buy 24 karat bars from vending machines.

For individuals and governments alike, gold has been the go-to “alternative monetary asset,” as World Bank President Robert Zoellick put it in November.

Bullion took on a new allure as the United States dollar and the euro continued to weaken amid ongoing concerns about the financial markets, and central banks sought to hedge against inflationary pressure. Driving demand even higher was the inability of institutions and currency hawks to buy Chinese renminbi, as its exchange is restricted, leaving few options to hedge against further drops in the world's two leading currencies. Gold's surge has raised debate about whether the precious metal should have a monetary role four decades after the US ended the gold standard. A return to the gold standard is not likely, or indeed necessarily wanted, but any country that sold off a good chunk of its gold, like Britain did a decade ago, is today regretting not having hard assets tucked away in the vaults.

For dollar-pegged currencies, which includes Lebanon and most of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, holding sizeable gold reserves has been a real boon. Five Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) states are in the top 30 countries in the World Gold Council's (WGC) World Official Gold Holdings rankings. But it is not the usual suspects of the oil-rich Gulf states taking the titles: Lebanon ranked 18th globally — just behind Britain and ahead of Spain — with 286.8 tons, equivalent to 25.2 percent of the central bank’s total reserves. Algeria, ranked 23rd, has 173.6 tons, Libya is right behind with 143.8 tons, and Turkey is in 29th place with 116.1 tons,

Out of the GCC nations, only Saudi Arabia makes it into the top ranking, leaping from 24th to 16th place in March when SAMA announced that, incredibly, due to “a difference in accounting” rather than new gold purchases, the kingdom had 322.9 tons instead of the earlier announced 143 tons. One can only wonder how much unaccounted-for gold there may be still hidden under the tiled floors of the Saudi central bank when such a staggering discrepancy is revealed. Furthermore, such holdings are only the reserves of SAMA, not the private stash of the estimated 7,000 members of the Saudi royal family, nor of Saudi citizens. Then there is the vast amount of gold ore lying under the kingdom's sands, estimated at 20 million tons, according to Australian government statistics. The Saudi Arabian Mining Company (Ma'aden) has five operating gold mines, with proven gold ore deposits of 1.3 million ounces and current exploration suggests deposits of more than 8 million ounces elsewhere on its acreage. This year British and Australian gold mining companies obtained exploration licenses.

With gold production having peaked in 2011 at 2,645 tons, and the output of the four traditional producers — South Africa, the United States, Canada and Australia — on a downward curve, Saudi Arabia, in addition to its gushing black gold, appears to be experiencing a gold rush of the more traditional type.

The big question now is whether gold will continue to rally in 2011. Gold bugs are dreaming of an ounce hitting $2,000, while other pundits suggest the rally may be over and it is better to buy silver.

MENA central banks holding gold appear to have no desire to sell. As Riad Salameh, the governor of Lebanon’s central bank, told Reuters in October: “Lebanon will sit on its gold... In a world where you could see major crises, the payment instrument of last resort is gold — especially for a country like Lebanon that doesn’t have natural resources.” The same could be applied to individuals. Personally, as a gold bug myself, I'm hoping for another glittering year in 2011.

PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Ongoing Legacy of Bhopal: Injustice and Anti-corporate Resistance

by Paul Cochrane in Bhopal
November 5th, 2010 -

The Sambhavna Trust Clinic (STC) receives over 180 victims of the Union Carbide gas leak everyday. It has to turn away patients as it lacks the resources to treat them all. The STC refuses to take corporate donations, not wanting to play into the PR propaganda machine, and is wary of the motivations of NGOs. “We think there is a need for space free from corporate manipulation,” said Satinath Sarangi, managing trustee of the STC.

The clinic is just 400 meters away from where 40 metric tonnes of lethal Methyl Iso-Cynate (MIC) gas billowed from the Dow Chemical subsidiary Union Carbide factory in 1984, exposing over 500,000 people, instantly killing some 8,000, and causing 25,000 deaths in the past 26 years. Today, some 120,000 to 150,000 people are chronically ill from exposure to MIC, approximately 10% of Bhopal’s population.

The MIC factory is visible from the second floor of the clinic, which was purposely built in the vicinity to treat the worst affected in a highly impoverished area of the city, with 24,000 Bhopalis registered with STC for long-term care.

The list of medical conditions is long, from respiratory problems, nerve disorders, blindness, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, brain damage, paralysis and gastric issues, to reproductive problems and stunted growth in children. According to a 2010 paper by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, titled “Effects of Exposure of Parents to Toxic Gases in Bhopal on the Offspring,” of women pregnant at the time of exposure, 43.86% lost their child.

“Our data are suggestive of delayed growth of the male until puberty and some slowing of growth of the female after attaining puberty,” the report further states.

Gas exposure also weakened immune systems, which has resulted in survivors more prone to die of disease, whether malaria, tuberculosis (TB), typhoid or dengue fever.

“TB is four times higher here than elsewhere in the country as the immune system is weakened, according to studies by London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine,” said Sarangi. “The researcher, Dr Neil Andersson, said Bhopal was like chemical aids.”

A woman waits for an appointment at the Sambhavna clinic

A festering wound

The MIC gas leak in Bhopal ranks as one of the world’s worst industrial accidents, and is a glaring case of justice denied. It is a tragedy, and one that has been made far worse than it ever should have been by the criminal negligence of Union Carbide/Dow Chemical (UC/DC) and the Indian authorities. Both parties (the Indian government and Indian stakeholders had a 49.1% stake) have downplayed the number of deaths, the number of victims and withheld information on what happened that fateful night at the factory, as well as locking survivors into decades of legal battles in their quest for compensation. UC/DC absconded from its legal charges in India and the CEO at the time, Warren Anderson, has not been extradited from the US to India to face charges brought against him – an effigy of him is burned every year on the anniversary of the tragedy in Bhopal. On top of all of this, there has not been a thorough clean up of the MIC’s factory, its surroundings and the ponds full of toxic sludge.

A toxic pond in the MIC compound

A boy sifts through rubbish inside the MIC factory compound

When compensation has come, it has been woefully inadequate. UC/DC paid out just $470 million in compensation, which the Indian government then sat on for years earning interest before reluctantly doling out the money in 2004. Survivors got just 25,000 Rupees ($555) each, of which many had already spent significant amounts on doctors, lawyers, transportation and bribery to get their cases to court. Compare that to the amount the US government forced BP earlier this year to stump up for the Gulf oil spill – $20 billion.

“There is clear double standards and racism. Dow Chemical has accepted the charges against Union Carbide in the US, whereas in Bhopal they say they are not liable. And there are many parallels with the BP oil spill. Information was similarly suppressed there,” said Sarangi. “What has happened here in Bhopal is a guidebook for how to escape corporate liability,” he added.

As Sanjay Verma, a baby at the time of the leak who survived due to his sister wrapping him tightly in blankets (the other 8 members of his family died of gas exposure), said: “Wounds heal over time, but in Bhopal the wounds get worse.”

It is also a lingering wound for Dow Chemical’s “brand name” through its refusal to deal honestly with the tragedy. The disaster, which has become synonymous with Bhopal, is forever a black mark against Dow. You can run, but you can’t hide.

Bhopal has become a clarion call for activists and the anti-globalization movement, a poster of the “true face of globalization” and the dark side of the “new world economy” where a multi-billion dollar company can get away with murder in a country where 80% of the population lives on less than $0.50 a day and through connivance with a government ready to pander to foreign companies in the ceaseless desire for capital. It is as crystal clear a case as you can get of profit before people.

Yet while Bhopal shows that while a crime can be committed and go essentially unpunished, it won’t be forgotten. It is a simmering issue with Indians and many around the world. Indeed, Verma, a local fixer, said he assists on average two journalists every month and dozens during the lead up to the anniversary. Bhopal is that rare thing, a continuous, ongoing media story.

“The Bhopal issue is still very potent, that even after so many years Bhopal is still a crack in the system, and lays bare corporations and government lackeys for what they truly are,” said Sarangi.

Slogans on the outside wall of the MIC factory on Union Carbide Road

A blow to US-India relations?

Bhopal is complicating US-India relations. In August, Delhi passed a law that could make nuclear power companies liable for damages in the advent of an accident, which has become a concern for US nuclear players eager to get in on India’s 123 Nuclear Agreement with the US that was signed in 2008 to develop civilian nuclear power.

Indian politicians, including the right wing BJP party, want the Bhopal tragedy to be raised with Barrack Obama when he visits India this coming week. Even if it is not broached, Bhopal will be a cloud over the president’s first visit to India. Four leftist political parties, activists and survivors of the gas leak will descend on the capital to picket Obama, and have called for a “a countrywide day of protest” on Nov. 8, for “justice for the victims of the Bhopal Gas accident” along with withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and ending funding to Israel. “We are going to Delhi to be heard at Obama’s visit,” said Sarangi.

But while issues of terrorism, strengthening bilateral ties and the usual mumbo-jumbo will be on the table when Obama visits, business will of course get a top billing.

“Obama is coming with the largest ever entourage of business representatives to get deals in India, but there has not been a single step to ensure that companies should abide by the law of the land or listen to the courts,” said Sarangi. He added that the United States-India Business Council (USIBC) will do what it can to prevent such laws being applied to US companies and for Anderson to not be extradited. “The USIBC has played a prominent role in the continued injustice of Bhopal,” he said.

A flier in Hindi from a demonstration during George W. Bush's visit to India, on the right is Warren Anderson

Getting Anderson into an Indian dock seems unlikely. He is 89 and retired, and with no Mossad-like agency to track him down like members of the SS guilty of Holocaust atrocities and crimes against humanity, Anderson can continue his pampered existence in the Hamptons. Moreover, it would set a bad precedent if the US handed him over. It would mean that could happen again, opening a Pandora’s Box for corporations and management wanted for breaking laws around the world. Moreover, as the financial pundits say, it would discourage US and foreign investment in India.

“No Hiroshima, No Bhopal, We Want to Live” is carved under a sculpture to the victims of the gas leak outside the UC factory. Let us hope not, but while pressure will continue to be put on the US government and Dow Chemical, the system is still operating to the mantra “business as usual” and India is keen to strengthen its ties with Washington. But the momentum is still there and the Bhopal tragedy refuses to go away.

Although there are very few positives in the aftermath of the Bhopal gas tragedy, lately there have been some developments. In June, a court sentenced seven former Union Carbide employees, all Indian, to two years in prison and fined 100,000 Rps ($2,100) each. The former Indian arm of Union Carbide was convicted of negligence and fined 500,000 Rps ($10,600). Some 26 years later, it is a case of very overdue justice, even if not severe enough, as activists rightly point out.

The authorities also decided to provide further compensation to those that lost a relative in the tragedy – although not to survivors – of 1 million Rps ($22,000). The issue now is whether people will get that amount, and what they are due.

Bring back the dead

Shamshad Begum lives in a one-room house down a small alleyway off Union Carbide Road, which flanks the MIC factory. When the gas escaped from the factory at five past midnight on December 2, 1984, Begum ran with her husband and two daughters, leaving her mother in law and young son behind as they weren’t able to move. “Bodies filled the roads. The gas was a blue colour, my throat felt bitter and we were all choking. I felt like I wasn’t going to survive, I was going to die, and I thought it better to die than breathe. My daughter’s eyes turned red, like a flame,” she said.

Her mother-in-law died that night, her son the next day. In the following years, she lost three children during pregnancy. A second son died in 1988, her eldest, married daughter is sick all the time, and her 15 year old daughter suffers from lung problems – yet she doesn’t want her to know – while her husband died three years ago from gas related side effects. “I’ve lost half of my family due to the disaster,” she said. “My husband got 25,000 Rps for the death of his mother. But in the end, when he was dying, he suffered a lot; what is 25,000 Rps?”

Without a husband or son to earn money, Begum struggles to survive on a widow’s pension of 150 Rps ($3.33) a month and renting out the next door room to migrant labourers for 400 Rps ($8.88) a month. Begum is hopeful that she will be given the 1 million Rps in compensation for her husband’s death and be entitled to a further million for the death of her mother in law so she can move away from Bhopal to live in “a clean and healthy place.” But Indian bureaucracy is not helping matters. “We submitted original death certificates and documents years ago, and now they want the originals again, but they have them, so there’s more paper work to do to get them back. They are delaying everything,” she said.

“I want to give a message, that corporations shouldn’t be allowed to operate that kill people and make them sleep forever,” said Begum. “I would tell them [UC/DC], give us the people back who died from our families, not compensation, give them back to us.”

Low income housing next to one of the toxic ponds, the disintegrating plastic visible in the foreground

A poisoned soil waste dump

For visitors and the press to enter the abandoned Union Carbide factory they need to get permission from the Deputy Collector (Gas Relief) in Bhopal, which typically takes 24 hours. This must be presented to the policemen at the entrance to the factory who then guide visitors around the site. Locals however do not need such paperwork, they can simply walk into the compound from the slums that surround the factory to scavenge for wood, graze their livestock or relax in the shade of the vegetation. The crumbling factory, offices and buildings aside, it is green and lush place, full of trees and tall grass. Chipmunks scurry about and birds twitter in the tree tops. It resembles a park in the middle of a city. But as a stencil on the outside wall of the factory states under a skull and cross bones, this is a “poisoned soil waste dump”.

One of the laboratories is totally open, the windows smashed and no locks on the doors, while bottles of chemicals are stacked up covered in cobwebs. A photojournalist last year moved one of the bottles for a shot of the label; he was later hospitalized for coming into contact with a dangerous chemical.

Cobweb covered bottles of chemicals at an abandoned lab in the MIC complex

The tank from which 40 metric tonnes of MIC gas escaped on that deadly night in December, 1984

The control room at the MIC factory. The sign says: Emergency Message I on Toxic Gas Emission.

Visitors are warned not to touch anything and immediately after the tour wash their clothes and footwear. There is plenty of toxic waste and dust around, and the steel structure of the factory is slowly disintegrating along with the vats and containers that held lethal chemicals.

At one end of the complex is a “serious contaminated zone,” which still reeks of chemicals. Only now is a wall being built to ostensibly keep people out, but there are plenty of gaps for locals to enter. And despite the wall, there are toxic ponds outside of the complex where people take livestock to drink, wash clothes and around which children play. The mud is also dug up to use as flooring for dwellings.

On the sides of the ponds, the black plastic lining used to contain the sludge is visible, UC having used a process of solar evaporation for the waste. In the dry season, the earth is covered in a thick white coating. This waste has entered the ground water and polluted the drinking water. Most water pumps have been turned off, but some remain and the government has been lax about getting piped clean drinking water to residents that live on what is a huge toxic dump.

One building inside the complex houses 350 metric tonnes of chemicals rotting away, locked but not sealed from the elements. What the impact is of storing these chemicals in the compound is not known. But the whole area, the vegetation included, is contaminated, according to research by Greenpeace. The site should be torn down and the waste safely disposed of, and not in the way the authorities did in the past when it transported 40 tonnes of waste to an incinerator in a nearby town without telling the residents. Not designating the area a contaminated zone is akin to the Ukrainian government letting people continue to live right beside the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Nearly 26 years after the disaster, there is still no justice and no environmental clean up, while victims continue to die from exposure and children continue to suffer. Bhopal is an issue that won’t go away until justice is finally achieved.


Friday, November 05, 2010

The Delhi belly games

Tools and child care facilities might have helped workers hit deadlines instead of headlines

By Paul Cochrane in New Delhi - Executive magazine
India is left red-faced after the Commonwealth Games

Hosting a global sporting event can do wonders for a country's image, proving it's a sophisticated, advanced nation able to meet demanding international standards and put on a good show. Think of China hosting the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the World Cup in South Africa this year.

But if the organizers are floundering just weeks before an event starts and negative publicity starts kicking in, a country's reputation can be dragged through the gutter. India’s mismanagement of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in New Delhi last month is such a case.

Qatar, which is bidding for the 2020 Olympics and the 2022 World Cup, would do well to learn from India’s mistakes if it is not to fall into the same trap.

Whether a country likes it or not, dirty laundry will be aired as every minute detail of the event falls under the microscope of the global media.

India spent some $9 billion on the CWG. Stories abound in the press about corruption, the working conditions of the 100,000 construction workers, the estimated 1,000 work-related deaths, and the 400,000 Indians that had their homes demolished to make space for the venues.

Some of India's largest construction companies have also had their names tarnished for flouting numerous work-related laws, among them the United Arab Emirates-India joint venture Emaar MGF. At the end of October India ordered the confiscation of the companies’ $41.3 million bank guarantee and brought legal action after “irregularities” and deficiencies were found in the CWG village.

Many Indians are embarrassed by the way the CWG has been handled, and rightfully so. A country cannot just paste over the cracks and hope no one notices. Ironically, India knows this only too well as it struggles to promote itself as an attractive investment and tourist destination. After all, India has spent millions of dollars on the very professionally done “Incredible India” ad campaign, but your potential tourist is invariably put off by the stereotype image of poverty and bad hygiene. It is perhaps no surprise then that India only receives a paltry 5 million foreign tourists a year; Egypt by comparison gets 13 million.

Indeed, security and hygiene were major concerns for CWG athletes, with several stars pulling out early and more threatening to do so in the week up to the event with facilities unfinished, a footbridge collapsing and a cobra found in an athlete’s room.

Things did not go much better once the event started. On the second day there was a bomb scare hoax and then the infamous Delhi belly started setting in, particularly among swimmers, attributed to pools' dubious water quality. English sprinter Mark Lewis-Francis chose not to bite on his (silver) medal on the podium, as is customary. “I don't really want to bite it because I don't want to get Delhi belly,” he told reporters.

India has not exactly helped itself either when trying to justify the sub-standard facilities at the Athletes’ Village, with an off-the-cuff remark by Organizing Committee General Secretary Lalit Bhanot causing much mirth: “Everyone has a different standard of hygiene. The rooms of the Games Village may be clean according to you and me, but they [the West] have some different standard of cleanliness.”

If Qatar gets either bid for the world's biggest sporting events, it will be a colossal undertaking for Doha. Qatar certainly has oodles of cash to play with and could pull off a great show if the planning is right. Despite early doubts, the Gulf state pulled off the Doha Asian Games in 2006.

The Asian Games were very much a trial run for something bigger, and Qatar has embarked on an ambitious marketing campaign to convince the world it has what it takes. The Middle East has never hosted an event of such global proportions, which lends weight to Qatar’s bid. Where else in the region could pull this off, particularly taking into account security concerns? Only the UAE springs to mind; Bahrain has enough on its plate with Formula 1. If it learns from India’s mistakes, Qatar may just have a sporting chance.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Interview about Khat with Paul Cochrane

All Treatment 

The following interview about Khat with Paul Cochrane discusses various issues surrounding Khat consumption and culture. Paul Cochrane is a journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon, covering the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Paul encountered and experienced Khat cultures first-hand through his travel in the Middle East. Paul's opinion and testimony do not endorse any particular treatment center.
Thank you for allowing me to interview you today. Can tell me a little bit about yourself? How do you first come to learn of Khat?

I first came across khat when reading Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. An avid khat chewer, Mackintosh-Smith brings up khat and its popularity in Yemen. I further encountered khat when studying for my Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut. Khat is a significant problem in Yemen, having a major impact on the economy, with an estimated 50% of Yemenis income going to acquire khat. Yemen is exceedingly poor, the poorest country in the Middle East and North Africa, so khat addiction clearly has an impact on spending, on children, nutrition and so on. Furthermore, it is putting immense stress on water resources. Khat is very water intensive to cultivate, and Yemen has water shortages, while cultivating khat means that other crops are not grown.

2. How and at what point during the course of your traveling did you first come to encounter Khat?
I first encountered and tried khat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2008. I had met some young Ethiopians at a coffee shop, and they invited me to a small room above the cafe to chew khat. I was interested to do so as I wanted to write an article about khat in Ethiopia (see During my travels there, I went to Harar, a major khat centre 10 hours drive from the capital, where I went to khat markets, visited khat farms, met dealers, distributors and rode delivery trucks.

3. As an organic drug, how is it generally produced and consumed?
Khat is a unique drug in that it has to be consumed within 24 hrs. It consists of cathinone and cathine, and it is the cathinone that produces stimulatory effects, 10 times more potent than cathine. As khat only has its effect within that time frame, it is a highly organized process from picking to sorting to delivering it in time to users - who want it as fresh as it can be. Apparently a pharmaceutical company in Kenya is working on trying to turn khat into a pill that would essentially freeze the khat's stimulatory properties. If this was developed, it would revolutionize the khat trade.
Khat is grown in fields, needing plenty of water, and the bushes grow pretty high, above head height. It is harvested very early in the morning, taken to a market where it is sorted - usually by women - into bundles according to its quality. Good khat is very expensive. It is then transported to markets in towns for people to buy, or placed on Isuzi flat bed trucks that drive at breakneck speed - hence the nickname "Al Qaeda trucks," as in the suicidal recklessness of the drivers - to airports or ports where it is then transported to neighbouring countries: Djibouti, Yemen, Uganda in particular, while also to Europe where it is not illegal and there is a sizeable East Africa/Yemeni expatriate populace, such as in London. In terms of consumption, it is a very sociable practice. Around midday, men - although women do take it - gather together, in rooms, on the street, in houses etc. and sit around plucking the leaves, a few millimetres under the stem. The leaves are then rolled into a ball in the hand, then put under the cheek and chewed. In Ethiopia, the khat is swallowed. In Yemen they spit it out. As it is quite bitter, people take it with peanuts and a soft drink. As khat sets in, after about 20 minutes, you get what is called in Amharic (the Ethiopian language) "merkhana" - high - and then you start talking avidly, music gets more intense. After a few hours you start getting introspective, which is when the group usually breaks up and people go their separate ways. It is a stimulant though, so some take it to study, read, write. It is hard to get to sleep though, so some people drink alcohol or smoke hashish to put them to sleep.

4. Khat is popular amongst many Middle Eastern and East African countries such as Ethiopia, and Yemen, from your personal traveling experience can you tell us about the general Ethiopian perception of Khat?
Khat, or chat as they call it in Ethiopia, is very widely consumed and has been done so for hundreds of years. Less though in the capital where it is not grown. It is popular with people from the north, and around Harar and Dire Dawar, in the east near the Somali border. In these areas there is no religious disapproval, certainly in Harar which is a very Muslim town - I saw a imam in a mosque sprawled on the carpet happily chewing away. It is even taken in the local prison. But in the capital I found some people disapproved, and the more religious Christians very much against it. Politicians also take it and there are stories of lavish khat chewing sessions among the elite.

5. Can you tell us of one memorable experience or encounter with Khat and/or Khat users?
I had lots of curious experiences with khat and khat users, from chewing on buses, in bars, on the street, to lying on the floor in a hotel lobby in the mid-afternoon with a group of men all indulging in khat, to chewing fresh khat with a farmer in his field - it is very addictive, and people chew it all the time. The strangest though was going with a wealthy Ethiopian friend to his house in the capital. Inside the compound they had a private mosque, with a sheikh reciting verses from the Quran. My friend, who works in Saudi Arabia, had told me not to talk about women or anything haram (sinful), yet here we were in a mosque drinking Ethiopian coffee and chewing khat amid a lot of frankincense burning away. Then a woman came up, and told my friend how a sheikh had cured her of breast cancer, then showing us the result; then a dwarf - a servant - came in bringing refreshments. It was all quite surreal, with or without chewing khat!

6. As a journalist, can you tell us about some of your observations concerning the noticeable perks and (social as well as personal) downsides of chewing Khat? Based on your opinion and experience, how is Khat different from other recreational drugs and products that are out there in the U.S. such as alcohol, coffee, marijuana, and opiates?
First, the pros. It is a stimulant, in fact used before coffee (which was discovered in Ethiopia) and similar to cocoa leaves. Students often take it to help them concentrate and study for long periods. It certainly had that affect on me, as I slept very little during my trip there, and on several occasions I didn't notice that I was reading for a straight three odd hours, only realizing when I looked at the clock and it was 2am. Athletes also take it, and you do walk faster during the initial few hours. Khat is a very sociable activity, triggering debate and making people very talkative.
On the downsides, it is very addictive. People spend a good amount of time everyday getting buying and then taking their fix. I noticed how addictive it was, as by midday the day after chewing khat, I could taste it inside my cheek, I wanted it. Curiously, as you take it into your digestive system in Ethiopia, I found my skin, certainly my arm pits, smelt of khat and my bodily deposits were green.
But while the sociable side is positive in many respects, the introspection is less so, as it turns people inward - which could be used constructively, like reading or writing, but in most cases is not. And this is the time when men would usually return home to their family.
Khat is ruining many people's lives and families because so much income goes towards khat, easily 50% or more if you are poor - so less money for food, clothes, education etc. and takes up a good portion of a person's day, with work usually confined to before lunch. Good khat is very expensive, at $10 to even $50 for a bushel. In Ethiopia to get good khat where they produce it costs around $6, poorer quality a few dollars. But most people in Ethiopia only earn a few dollars a day. Another downside is that people eat less, as the chewing makes the body feel it is eating, and as a stimulant it represses the appetite, so people can be undernourished as a result, able to go for long periods of time without eating. Addiction, like addiction to all drugs and alcohol, can also result in losing one's job, house etc. In Harar I saw many men living on the street that were khat users. One man had lost his teeth, so was using a mortar and pestel to crush the khat as he couldn't chew it. I did not hear of Ethiopians turning to crime though to fund their habit.
As I said earlier, khat cultivation means that other crops are not grown as it is much more lucrative for farmers to grow khat. It is water intensive, so it has negative effects on the environment, especially as this part of the world often lacks abundant rainfall (although less the case in northern Ethiopia). In Yemen this is a very pressing issue.
Ethiopians told me khat was not harmful, with users praising it, and did not result in sexual problems such as impotency, organ failure or memory loss, although medical research has shown otherwise, particularly in long term users. However, not enough medical research has been done on the medium to long term effects of khat usage.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Go India, Go! A Referendum for Kashmir Is Needed

by Paul Cochrane in New Delhi, October 15 -

I was sitting with some Kashmiri friends in their apartment in the New Delhi area of Lajpat Nagar, just a stone’s throw away from the Nehru Stadium, one of the sports complexes India has shelled out $9 billion to host the Commonwealth Games (CWG). The CWG, which brings together the 71 countries and territories of the former British Empire, was about to launch, and on a national TV channel the slogan was “Go India Go.”

Sprawled out on Kashmiri carpets, we were discussing the grave situation in Kashmir over the past four months. Since June 11, when the Indian army shot at unarmed demonstrators, over 100 Kashmiris have been killed, including women and children, and the Kashmir Valley has been under total curfew. Half a million Indian soldiers carry out patrols, raise check points and bunkers, ID anyone out and about, and shoot to kill without any hindrance or worry about being hauled up in front of a military tribunal – the diabolical Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has seen to that, letting soldiers, quite literally, get away with murder.

The conversation turned to how different this summer had been from the violence, protests and strikes of previous years. “It’s the worst it’s been in 20 years,” said Hamid, who is in his early 50s. “People are totally fed up with being stuck inside, the schools closed, and food supplies running out. Kashmiris have had enough.”

In 1989, a popular rebellion – a Kashmiri intifada – against Indian misrule began, further stoked by militant Islamic groups funded and supported by Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) in the wake of the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, sending scores of Afghan veterans and Azad Kashmiris across the Line of Control (LoC) that separates Indian Jammu and Kashmir, and the Pakistani Azad (free) Kashmir (China has the remaining 20%, Aksai Chin, claimed by India). This proxy war between Pakistan and India, that remnant of Partition in 1947, put the Kashmiri populace in the middle. Intifada after intifada has occurred since 1989 and the Indian army has cracked down hard, notably in 2001, when over 1,000 civilians were killed. Over 45,000 Kashmiris have been killed over that 20 year period. Last year 72 civilians died at the hands of the Indian armed forces.

One major difference this year from former crises, when feelings simmered to a boiling point and Kashmiris took to the streets, is that this time there has been minimal militancy – apart from of the stone throwing kind and rioting. Sympathy with the militants has waned – particularly for Pakistani-backed groups – but anger with New Delhi’s political dillydallying and iron fist policy in tackling the “Kashmir issue” has spiked. The youth are not interested anymore in siding with New Delhi or Islamabad. The youth want independence, or, at worst, autonomy from India. The slogan at the huge protests that filled the streets of the summer capital, Srinagar, was “Go India Go,” particularly by the Quit Kashmir Movement and All Parties Hurriyat Conference. As we talked of this, the slogan flashed up on Times News channel as part of its CWG coverage. We all spotted the irony and started laughing: “GO India, GO!”

My friends are like many Kashmiris, forced to leave the valley for New Delhi some 1,000 kilometers away or even further afield in search of employment, selling carpets and other Kashmiri handicrafts, that major money earner that disappeared as the tourists stayed away. Indeed, the situation has been so precarious over the past decade that numerous guidebooks on India don’t even have a section on Kashmir anymore. It was a place once called the Switzerland of Asia due to its mountains, rivers and forests, giving the inspiration to that great Led Zeppelin song, Kashmir, in the 1970s when rock stars rented palatial boats on Dal Lake in Srinagar and Bollywood filmed dance numbers on the Alpine slopes. Now it is paradise lost.

So instead of investing billions of dollars on improving the infrastructure and livelihood of Kashmiris, or for the other 830 million Indians that live on less than 20 Rupees a day ($0.45), Delhi spent – and officials pocketed – $9 billion on the CWG. An event that – other than negative coverage by the international media in the lead up when a bridge collapsed, a cobra was found in an athlete’s room and so on – has garnered minimal attention worldwide. The Indians themselves seem far more focused on watching cricket matches.

While people starve, the healthcare system privatized, and people forced off their land for new real estate projects, mines and special economic zones, more is being spent on India’s military industrial complex. And Kashmiris, along with other “insurgents”, the Maoists, the Naxalites, keep getting killed by trigger happy soldiers with a licence to kill.1

In terms of global media coverage, Kashmir is a largely unheard of conflict, especially when placed next to neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan. The bleeding wound that is Kashmir is very much tied into Bush’s and now Obama’s war on Afghanistan, which is spilling over into Pakistan.

Kashmir is part of a regional game, a victim of its geography and religious make up – a mix of Sunni and Shia, the one million Hindu Pandits that lived there forced out over the years due to religious extremism and the perception that the Pandits were overwhelming with the predominantly Hindu national government rather than with Kashmir per se (a controversial government paper has shown that Muslims are under-represented politically and socially disadvantaged in India).

Kashmir has played directly into the ISI’s hands and to countries such as Saudi Arabia keen to export its brand of Islam (Kashmir had a large Sufi following while its Buddhist past also played its part in Kashmiri Islam). The religious dimension is the proverbial spanner in the works to a solution, the hatred so deeply ingrained over the past 63 years between the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and Hindu majority India. Pakistan is against an independent Kashmir that unites both sides, losing as it would its border and access to China, not to mention a major dent to its pride and the all powerful military that forms the backbone of the Pakistani nation. India’s Hindu populace – which has become far more radical and militant over the past 20 years – would equally be against losing a major part of the Northern provinces, especially to Muslim rule.

Srinagar during curfew

While international observers are calling on the LoC to become an international border, joint institutions to be developed and for the United States to partake in ‘quiet diplomacy’ and utilize its relations with Islamabad and growing alliance – particularly militarily and on nuclear power – with New Delhi, a far more radical solution is called for. One fitting with what India champions itself as, “the world’s largest democracy” – a referendum on what the Kashmiri people want, not Delhi, its puppets or the Kashmiri dynasties that have ruled the valley: independence or autonomy? This is in line with a 1948 UN resolution which called for a plebiscite to determine the wishes of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, but Delhi has repeatedly rejected the idea. In the meantime, the extrajudicial killings have to stop, and the AFSPA totally abolished.

As for Pakistan, that Frankenstein country propped up financially by the unlikely trio of China, Saudi Arabia and the US, it must end its 30 year funding of Kashmir-driven militant groups. Indeed, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf admitted earlier this month in London, that the ISI – before his rule, he made clear to point out – set up such groups in the 1980s and early 1990s to attack India. Evidence has also surfaced that the Kashmir-linked, ISI funded militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba was behind the November, 2008 attacks on Mumbai. Pakistan’s support for such groups has fuelled Islamic resistance in the Valley and provides a pretext for the Indian army to shoot unarmed protestors, labelling them terrorists and eyeing all Kashmiris as potential militants. Such an attitude was starkly conveyed to me a few years ago when trekking up in Gulmarg in the Kashmir Valley. I was talking to an Indian soldier, alone at his post overlooking the small town, and he pointed down and said: “All terrorists.”

It is time for the Kashmiris to decide if they want India to stay or to go. The same applies for Azad Kashmir. The Kashmiris should no longer be stuck between the Indian hammer and the Pakistani anvil.


For an excellent analysis on the state of India’s ‘democracy’ and corporate takeover see Arundhati Roy’s The Trickledown Revolution, Outlook, 20 September, 2010.

Photographs courtesy of Sarwar Bazaz

Friday, October 15, 2010

Dark days for the Gulf

Commentary - Executive magazine

It’s been a long hot summer. Temperatures hit all-time highs and Ramadan demand put power grids under serious strain across the Middle East. Few countries were spared as power outages hit Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Sharjah, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. But in those places suffering from power cuts, people seemed largely unaware of the rest of the region's electricity woes.

A Baghdad grocer adjusts a battery powered lamp in his shop during a power outage this summer

While Lebanese carried out their daily litany of complaints about blackouts, damning and blasting the government, many were surprised when I told them that Sharjah had such an electricity deficiency that residents were sleeping in air conditioned cars to avoid baking in concrete apartment blocks. It was so hot in the emirate that hospitals were inundated with cases of heat stroke and a construction worker died from heat exhaustion.

In Damascus, residents hot under the collar due to a lack of air conditioning knew of Lebanon's long-term electricity conundrum, but were unaware that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — those rich Gulf countries where many Syrians seek work — were also having blackouts. With an 8 percent annual deficit, the situation was so bad in Saudi Arabia that school children were passing out while taking exams and airplanes were grounded. Kuwait's network hit 99 percent of capacity.

Power shortages in the region's poorer, more corrupt and war ravaged countries — Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon — are daily occurrences and are not unexpected, but why are they happening in the energy-rich Gulf?

The problem is that peak demand occurs every summer at the same time across the region. Populations growing in size and affluence means more air-conditioners — and industrial activity is increasing. All of this, coupled with exceedingly low electricity tariffs and an incredible lack of forward-planning has resulted in a major shortage of megawatts (MW). And without the modern day wonder of air conditioning, the region, particularly the Gulf, is not a place conducive to working or living as the mercury rises.

Thomas Edison, one of the inventors of the light bulb, once said: “I shall make electricity so cheap that only the rich can afford to burn candles.” In much of the Middle East, Edison's saying has been translated as: “We shall make electricity so cheap everyone uses too much of it, and only the rich can afford to run generators.” Lebanon is a case in point, with power “provider” Electricité du Liban to generate $800 million in bills this year, while the Lebanese will spend $1.76 billion on running generators.

But there is hope that such electricity shortages will be abated, with the cuts prompting such furor among the people that governments have been forced to invest in more power production. The Gulf countries are to spend an estimated $200 billion on power plants, Lebanon some $4.7 billion, Iraq up to $10 billion. Everywhere else there are plans for upgrades and new plants. Renewable energy and nuclear power are also in the pipeline, as is the $560 billion Desertec solar power project in North Africa. And if other solar power initiatives get underway in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, the region will be able to produce up to 470,000 MW of sustainable electricity by 2050, according to research by the German Aerospace Center.

While such initiatives are laudable, practical solutions to the current shortages need to be implemented. It takes around three years to build a conventional power plant, and once output is increased, there is usually a corresponding rise in demand as people use more electricity. It's a vicious cycle.

Before these projects get underway, thinking about how to lower overall consumption across the region should be part of every national power plan. Can we really call a ski slope in a mall in the desert an efficient use of electricity? Do empty office blocks have to be lit up like Christmas trees in the middle of the night? And when the whole of Lebanon lacks electricity, did the Maronite Church have to erect the world’s largest illuminated cross at Qanat Bekish in Mount Lebanon, a 240 foot high construction lit by a staggering 1,800 spotlights?

If temperatures are as high again next year and such wanton waste of electricity continues, power cuts are likely to be worse. In the meantime, higher tariffs to encourage people to use power more wisely would help to ensure more people are sleeping in their houses rather than their cars this time next year.

PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services

Turkey's clothing and textile sector rebounds

By Paul Cochrane for

Turkey's clothing and textile sector has rebounded this year on the back of strong sales to Europe and emerging markets, with clothing exports up 11% to US$9.5bn as of August 2010, and textile exports reaching US$4.1bn, up 23% on 2009.

"Last year was a disastrous year, with clothing exports down 23%. This year we're recovering, exports are up, but 17% below 2008 and 10% below 2007," said Mehmet Kumbaraci, director general of the Turkish Clothing Manufacturers Association (TGSD).

Current export figures suggest the TGSD's forecasts for 2010 were relatively solid, with ready-to-wear exports projected at around US$14bn and textile exports at US$6bn. Their predictions, however, had looked rather rose-tinted in the spring.

"We were rather pessimistic at the beginning of the year, but textile exports in August were US$480m, up 10% on the previous month, and US$1.1bn in clothing exports, up 6% on July. I expect for the end of the year exports will be more than US$14bn for clothing, and about US$6bn for textiles.

"All plants are fully occupied, including high quality orders from suppliers in Pakistan, Bangladesh and China," said Kumbaraci. Demand ranges across the industry for all types of garments, he added, with no notably higher demand for any specific items.

Turkey was the only 'top 20' exporter to the European Union (EU) to record gains in the first five months of 2010, up 18.5% in Euro earnings between January and May. The other 19 main exporting countries - including China and India - have seen exports fall, stressed Zafer Çaglayan, Turkey's state minister for foreign commerce, at the launch of Istanbul Fashion Week 2010 in late August.


Despite overall textile and garment purchases by the EU falling this year, Turkish manufacturers have increased exports due to what Kumbaraci called the sector's principle of "fashion-fast-flexible."

Lead times have gradually dropped from two months to under four weeks, while the sector's highly skilled workforce, technology and design capabilities have retained Turkey's value-added edge with retailers who are not keen on having too high an inventory in the current economic climate.

This was reflected, for example, in Hugo Boss's decision to enlarge its men's wear factory in Izmir this year, while German men's wear brand Roy Robson has opened a men's wear factory nearby, said Kumbaraci.

"Since we have demand we are urging our members, which are congested with expected and un-expected demand from all over the EU, to invest in more technology and nano-technology, as well as make their own designs," he said.

"We are also encouraging young designers to go to Europe, and for manufacturers to hire young stylish designers that know about the European and American markets."

While the EU accounts for 80% of Turkey's exports, according to the TGSD, domestic clothing sales are also up this year - having fallen 15% in 2009 - and exports to emerging markets are faring well, particularly for Turkish-made brands in Tunisia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Azerbaijan and China.

"The Chinese are now wearing more, so local demand is going up there and people want to have goods from abroad. 'Made in Turkey' products are in high demand and we are urging retail chains to open in China, and some are going," said Kumbaraci.

US recovery slow

Exports to the United States, however, have not recovered because import has primarily been for lower-cost garments and textiles than offered by Turkey. Exports are currently valued at US$300m a year compared to US$1.5bn a few years ago.

The TGSD is urging the government to push for Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs) to be established in Turkey which would exempt products from US import taxes, as is the case for QIZs in Egypt and Jordan.

But while the sector is buoyant, it is facing global problems such as the record high cotton prices, and the TGSD is pushing the government to be more flexible with the minimum wage in poorer parts of Turkey to enable the sector to better compete internationally price-wise.

The TGMA's long-term goal is for Turkey to account for 5% of global clothing exports - as in 2005 - at some US$22.5bn to US$25.3bn by 2014, and US$60bn by 2023.

"Next year looks brighter, yet I am not sure if the crisis is 100% over everywhere. We have to be optimistic on one hand and cautious on the other," said Kumbaraci.