Monday, August 27, 2012

NAM in spotlight as global South reemerges

Illustration: Sun Ying
Illustration: Sun Ying

Global Times | 2012-8-27

Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summits have typically been treated as non-newsworthy events by Western media. But this NAM summit, which began Sunday in Tehran, has aroused unusual interest.

The attention focused on the 16th NAM summit is not due to the movement's founding principles of peaceful coexistence and standing against Western hegemony and neo-colonialism. After all, such aims are not deemed newsworthy, but are instead considered as rather wishy-washy utopian and naive ideals, if not downright knee-jerk anti-Western rhetoric.

The significance of NAM, set up in 1961 in Belgrade to provide a voice for the Third World and create some political talking space in a bipolar world, has admittedly waned in the two decades after the end of the Cold War and US triumphalism in a unipolar world.

While NAM has struggled to find its footing in a new world order, it has shown that the people of the global South still have a voice and that the desire for equal footing in global affairs is still there. Over the past decade the movement has been given a boost by the economic rise of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), the political swing against the US and institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in South America, and the gradual shift eastward of economic power since the 2007 financial crisis.

One only has to recall how obsequious former British prime minister Gordon Brown was in 2008 when he went to the Persian Gulf cap in hand to beg for bailouts and financial assistance for the IMF. When the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, both NAM members, stumped up cash, Brown was forced to concede that countries that contributed in this way should have a greater say in the overall governance of the IMF.

While nothing has changed in the IMF's governance, Brown's statement is indicative of potential changes in the economic order. Likewise, foreign creditors of US federal debt has ballooned since 2007, going from $2.4 trillion, or 53.5 percent of total debt, to approximately $5 trillion, or 56.9 percent of total debt in 2011. If change is to happen in the relations between the North and the global South, then it may well come through economic leverage rather than political demands.

But while changing capital flows may make some in the West sit up and take more notice of the "darker nations," this NAM summit is getting attention for political reasons. The recently elected president of post-revolutionary Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, snubbed an invitation to visit Washington in favor of a visit to China and then to attend NAM.

While this is diplomatically significant, the main reason for the renewed focus on NAM is that it is being held in a country the West has tried to isolate for three decades, recently slapped on tough economic sanctions, and is threatening conflict over its alleged nuclear weapons program. Unsurprisingly the US and Israel have condemned the summit, with the US State Department stating Iran was not "deserving" of being the host. Both countries have urged UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to not go to Iran.

However, the place for the head of the UN is certainly at a gathering of leaders that represent the majority of the world's population. It would in fact go against the founding principles of what the UN is supposed to be about, uniting nations, for Ban to not be there.

What riles the US and Israel is that the summit may undermine their efforts to isolate Tehran at this time, that there has been overwhelming support among NAM members for Iran to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes, and that NAM supports a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.

That Iran will try to maximize its position as the host and next leader of NAM to bolster its international standing is a given, but what member states will decide upon is another matter. Indeed, Tehran will try to rally support for its ally Syria at the summit, but this may prove hard to do, with 70 out of the 119 NAM members in favor of a UN General Assembly vote in early August condemning the Syrian government's violence against its people, and only eight voting with Syria, Iran, China and Russia.

What is certain is that under Iran's leadership, NAM is likely to be more vocal on the world stage than it has been for decades, and because of that may very well garner more media coverage outside of the global South.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Lebanese clan denies it planned to abduct Emiratis

The National newspaper, Mohammed N Al Khan and Paul Cochrane

DUBAI AND BEIRUT // A sectarian clan in Lebanon that kidnapped 20 people in two days has denied a suggestion by a family member that it planned to abduct Emiratis or other Arabian Gulf nationals to use as leverage.
On Wednesday, the Meqdad clan based in Bekaa began rioting and kidnapping in retaliation for the capture by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) of a clan relative, Hassane Salim Al Meqdad.
The FSA claims Mr Al Meqdad is a member of Hizbollah and a staunch supporter of the president Bashar Al Assad's regime. Hizbollah and his family deny the claims.
In reaction to the violence, the UAE and several other Gulf countries issued stern travel advisories to citizens. Bassam Etani, from the UAE Embassy in Beirut, said the travel warning would remain in place for the next few days.
"Today it's been very quiet here; tomorrow we'll just have to wait and see," Mr Etani said.
There are about 40 Emiratis in Lebanon, mostly on business or for medical reasons.
A Meqdad spokesman yesterday said the clan would cease abductions because they "have a sufficient number of Syrians linked to the Free Syrian Army" in custody.
He also denied that they had planned to kidnap GCC nationals, saying only Turks and Syrian rebels had been their targets.
"Regarding Saudis, Qataris and Gulf nationals, they are not targets for the Meqdad clan," Maher Al Meqdad told Reuters from southern Beirut.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait all issued travel warnings to citizens, with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, tweeting: "This is the third warning from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"Unfortunately, the situation in Lebanon is extremely dangerous. I urge my fellow nationals to take this warning with all seriousness."
Mr Etani said the UAE embassy in Beirut remained on high alert.
"We are ready to assist anyone who might need help," he said. "Our offices are open around the clock and we have made arrangements should anyone need immediate flights back to the UAE.
"At the moment we've not had anything more than calls from people just checking in to see how things are."
The Lebanese government has ordered more military on to the streets to keep the situation under control and the prime minister, Najib Miqati, said Wednesday's "developments will not be repeated".
Despite such assurances, Syrians fear further kidnappings and attacks. An obscure Lebanese group calling itself Mukhtar Al-Thaqfi Brigade claiming it had also kidnapped members of the FSA.
Such news has prompted Syrians on holiday or taking refuge in Lebanon to move to safer areas, such as the mountains and Jounieh – Christian areas where they feel more secure.
One Syrian visitor to Beirut has not stepped outside since the kidnappings.
"After what happened I was warned by Lebanese friends to stay off the streets. So, I stayed in Wednesday night and today, and I'm not going out until it is safe," said Munir Abdulghani, who works as an engineer in Saudi Arabia.
The kidnappings had an immediate effect on hotel reservations in the capital.
"Because of what happened we have had a lot of cancellations for Eid," said Michelle Naaman, the director of marketing for Monroe Hotel in Beirut.
"I think basically a lot of people were waiting to see if the situation improved so they could come for the holiday, but I'm sure they've now changed their minds.
"One Qatari man was supposed to fly in on Friday but was called [by the Qatari government] and told he couldn't travel. He was given no choice."
Pierre Ashkar, head of the Hotel Owners Association, played down the effect of the ban, pointing to earlier travel warnings by GCC states in May and June.
"It is a real minority [of tourists] – a question of a few hundred, not a few thousand people," Mr Ashkar said.
But it is business as usual for local airlines, and Etihad Airways has said its flights will continue to operate between Abu Dhabi and Beirut as normal.
"Passengers with tickets purchased on or before August 16, 2012, with travel up to and including August 31, 2012, can [subject to availability of the same fare] change their flight dates at no cost to no later than September 30, 2012, or cancel the ticket and have it refunded," the airline said.
A spokesman for Emirates Airline said it was also operating normally.
"The current unrest has not caused any disruption to Emirates flight operations," he said. "Emirates continues to monitor the situation closely."

* Paul Cochrane reported from Beirut. Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Everybody stay cool

Commentary - Executive magazine
Modest changes in power usage could save enough to let us all sweat less
Lebanon is going through one of its worst energy shortages in years. Even the most electrified part of the country, central Beirut, is experiencing more than the usually standard three-hour outages. Tires have been burnt in protest and people's tempers are rising along with the mercury.

While wrangling at √Člectricit√© du Liban (EDL) over contract workers has caused interruptions of late and the state electricity provider has undoubted culpability in the chronic shortages, the rise in energy demand is also to blame. Last year, EDL produced the same amount of electricity as now — some 1,600 megawatts (MW) — while demand rose to over 2,300 MW. And what has caused more frequent and longer blackouts this summer is not the tourism season, weak as it is, but a surge in the use of high energy usage appliances.

One of the biggest energy guzzlers are widescreen LCD televisions, which have become so affordable to be almost ubiquitous, glaring away in so many homes, offices, restaurants and stores. For instance, a 40-inch LCD TV uses 240 watts per hour, and a 50-inch screen 400 watts, compared to 42 watts for a 28-inch LCD, and 87 watts for a conventional TV of the same size. While such wall-dominating screens are a drain on energy, watt usage rises again when coupled with air conditioning (A/C) units, which have risen in popularity in Lebanon as in much of the world, with global sales up 13 percent in 2011 on 2010. There are no accurate local figures, but in neighboring Gulf countries A/C accounts for a whopping 70 percent of annual peak electricity consumption and is expected to triple by 2030 to require the equivalent of 1.5 million barrels of oil per day to power.

The red, white and green of Lebanon may have a little less grey in it if we all turn down the knob on the air  conditioning, or just get a fan

In Beirut demand for A/C is driven in large part by what is called the “urban heat island effect,” where buildings retain heat and warm up the surroundings, which then increases humidity. On average, A/C units use 900 watts per hour, although more energy efficient ones use around 800 watts when initially turned on, then consumption drops to 600 watts and can drop to less than 80 watts if set at a high temperature. By comparison, a ceiling fan, at full power, uses just 75 watts per hour.

So what to do about this surge in energy demand? Widescreen TVs can of course be turned off or watched selectively, but turning off A/C in the height of summer is not an option for most, especially if there actually is electricity. Pleas for people to turn off A/Cs and use fans instead will no doubt fall on deaf ears — even though fans can make the temperature feel four to eight degrees cooler — as once people have made the switch to A/C it is hard to go back. But more efficient usage of A/C is possible, as was demonstrated in Japan a few years ago when the prime minister, expecting energy demand to spike in the summer months as A/C usage rose, suggested workers don more practical summer outfits, of short sleeved shirts over suits and ties, and set A/C units at 26 to 28 degrees instead of the temperature of a warmish spring day of 16 to 18 degrees. Although it is hard to judge the success of the initiative, according to one government survey, 43 percent of employees did lighten up on the office A/C. Another technique called district cooling, using available sea water, could also offer a cheap and affordable option to knock off as much as 30 percent of consumption during peak hours. 

Lebanon, however, is not renowned for successful collective efforts ‘for the good of all’. Even if the president, prime minister and speaker of the house all gave a joint press conference uniformly dressed in short sleeved shirts, shorts and sandals with a message to encourage people to turn off the widescreen and set their A/Cs at 28 degrees, it would be unlikely that people would follow suit.
But the private sector could be encouraged to adopt a summer uniform and lower the A/Cs. One, it would reduce overheads through lower electricity bills; two, companies could tout such a move as part of a “going green” policy of corporate social responsibility; and three, staff will be more relaxed in the office. Even a partial reduction in energy use would help to keep the lights, fans and yes, even A/Cs on for just a bit longer in what is going to be a hot and humid few months ahead.

Book review - Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil

Executive magazine

The oil industry’s manipulation of governments and the economies of countries to secure and increase profits has been happening almost since there was an industry to speak of. In Timothy Mitchell’s book “Carbon Democracy,” he highlights how through much of the early 20th century big oil companies worked to contain supply — in particular by preventing the emergence of an oil industry in the Middle East — to keep oil prices up, and consequently bolster profit margins.

Last year, the profits of the Big Five international oil companies (IOCs) — BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell — were up 75 percent on 2010, at a record $137 billion, yet production was down by 4 percent. And rather than invest heavily in production or job creation, these companies sunk $38 billion, or 28 percent of annual net income, in repurchasing their own stock, therefore boosting investor returns.

However, a major difference from the first half of last century is that IOCs are not able to negotiate quite the same profitable agreements with oil producing countries, or delay development, as before. This is reflected in the 2011 oil export revenues earned by members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which for the first time exceeded $1 trillion. At the same time the OPEC results were announced last month, the Fraser Institute’s 2012 Global Petroleum Survey indicated that Middle Eastern countries have higher barriers to investment in hydrocarbon exploration and production than anywhere else in the world. There is a clear correlation here, as OPEC members have had to learn the hard way about who takes what for the extraction of underground riches; the IOCs have responded to this through the modes they still have influence over to retain profits.

In Carbon Democracy, Mitchell’s focus is the relationship between hydrocarbons and political institutions, tracking the changes from the industrial revolution all the way up to the so-called “Arab Spring” and how revenues from hydrocarbons are connected to democracy and economic development. Without oil, Mitchell argues, the current economic model of unlimited growth would not be possible, while the management of economic growth provided modes of regulation to govern carbon democracy.

Controlling supply is clearly a way of influencing prices and means of governing. This is one reason why there is a distinct lack of refineries in some oil producing countries, as delaying refining can artificially restrict the amount of oil that flows to the markets. But another reason is to drive a wedge between production and transportation, which helps prevent strikes and disruptions to the flow of oil by not overly centralizing the value chain and thus not have large concentrations of workers. This is a crucial point in Mitchell’s revealing book, as it was a deliberate government policy in the West in the lead up to World War One to switch from coal to oil to nip-in-the-bud further strikes by miners that had brought economies to a standstill. After all, miners’ strikes had led to the adoption of better working hours and conditions, welfare, healthcare and more democratic rights.

The chapters on the Middle East are particularly revealing, along with his debunking of conventional historical accounts — namely the discovery of oil and delayed exploitation — and what is misleadingly called the “oil crisis” of 1973, which was a pivotal event in transforming international finance, national economies, flows of energy and in placing the weakened carbon democracy of the West into a new relationship with the oil states of the Middle East.

Rather than being a black and white textbook case of supply and demand at work, of OPEC members cutting oil supply to pressure the United States over its unequivocal support for Israel during the October 1973 war, Mitchell shows that it was difficult to know how much oil prices went up due to a cut in supply or even how much supply was actually cut. For while Saudi Arabia and Kuwait reduced exports, other countries increased production. Furthermore, unlike today, there was no ‘market price’ for crude oil, so no one could know what ‘the market’ actually was, while OPEC’s decision to raise tax on oil production by 70 percent at the time was somewhat coincidental, having been decided before the war broke out.

Mitchell’s book ends by considering the impact of supply constraints due to the rising demand for oil, and how climate change impacts market conditions in a post-oil world where alternative forms of energy will affect how people and economies are governed. How and when we might emerge into the post-oil world is, however, a question that remains to be answered.