Saturday, May 30, 2009

Yemen's Qat Addiction

Cam McGrath reports on the environmental problems associated with qat farming in Yemen:
"'The increase in qat cultivation is having a huge impact on the groundwater (stock),' says Noori Gamal, senior hydro-geologist at the Ministry of Water and Environment. 'Agriculture accounts for about 90 percent of Yemen's groundwater consumption, and at least 30 percent of this is used just for growing qat.'

"The National Water Resources Authority (NWRA) estimates Yemen's total renewable water resources at 2.5 billion cubic metres a year, while more than 3.4 billion cubic metres is consumed annually. With consumption far exceeding the rate of natural recharge, it is only a matter of time before groundwater is pumped dry."

The problem, however, seems not to be with the choice of crop so much as irrigation methods:
"Abdullah insists that qat is not a water-intensive shrub; the problem is that fields are irrigated in the traditional manner, which wastes a lot of water. 'We create terraces and flood them,' he says. 'But we are also careful not to give the trees too much water because otherwise their leaves will grow to a size where they lose value.'

"Agriculture experts say 20 to 30 percent of water can be saved each year by applying modern irrigation techniques such as sprinkler irrigation, drip systems and micro tube-bubbler systems. However, the low cost of water pumping gives farmers little incentive to adopt these techniques."

Based on this, it's not clear to me why simply changing crops would lead to that much water savings. Yemen's government is trying to shift subsidies in such a way so as to encourage farmers to switch to different crops of change techniques, but it would seem that directly subsidizing efficiently irrigated crops would be the best way to go.

The problems with qat, however, go deeper than just the environment. Production of this narcotic has chased out much coffee production, as coffee takes longer to mature and doesn't produce as much, as well as food, meaning that Yemen is no longer self-sufficient in food. Qat isn't even marketable abroad, so the social costs of qat chewing fall entirely on Yemen. I hadn't realized, however, that Yemen was this much of a narcostate:
"Unfortunately, it's not that simple," Noori asserts. 'Qat is a major source of tax revenue and the centre of all corruption in Yemen. Over 50 percent of tax revenue is derived from qat, but this is only about a third of the real revenue it generates. Everyone from farmers to the highest officials is involved in the qat trade and taking money under the table.'

"While the government makes broad statements about its intention to reduce the consumption and cultivation of the narcotic plant, any genuine effort is thwarted from within, he adds. 'Much of the crop is actually grown on government land, so officials involved will block any attempt to reduce its market.'"

If that's the case, the changes in irrigation may be the best Yemenis can hope for in the near term.

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Managing the Teaching Load

Dr. Crazy has some advice up on how to thrive in a job with a heavy teaching load. I thought I'd offer some thoughts of my own on how to handle the teaching, which can spin out of control simply because those of us who love teaching can allow it to suck up all our spare time as we continually try to learn new things and refresh old ones to bring into our classes. With that in mind, here are three things that work for me as a history professor in trying to consolidate the time I spend prepping for courses, especially new ones.

1.) Set clear pedagogical goals

This is probably harder if your department emphasizes coverage, because there's always more stuff you could cover. It was also my enemy in the fall, when both my modern Middle East history course and my interdisciplinary Middle East "Core" course were hampered by my attempts to simply accomplish too much. A good counterexample, however, would be my spring course on the Ottoman Empire. There, precisely because I was concerned many students wouldn't find much value aside from filling a requirement, I articulated clear themes about universalist agrarian empires and nationalist historiographies, as well as the major stages of development within the Ottoman imperial system and attempts to reform it. This led me to spend much less time trying to figure out what to do with random provincial revolts and other potential themes that I could not tie into that governing agenda.

2.) Don't forget skill development

As a historian of the premodern Middle East, I have to learn to use many different types of evidence beyond the archival stuff that are most modernists' stock in trade. For example, one project I'm developing is on free ports in the Persian Gulf, and toward that end I've accepted a position as "Project Historian" on the imminent excavation of Kazima in Kuwait, a caravan trade entrepot from the 3rd through 9th centuries. The entire area of study will involve archaeology as well as written sources, and part of my interest in the project and my current outside readings is to deepen my understanding of archaeology as a discipline and the types of questions in which it specializes. This work will also inform my teaching of world history next year at Shippensburg when I discuss "how historians work" issues.

3.) Build more advanced courses out of your survey preparation

This I stumbled onto accidentally, but it's a good rule of thumb, as well. One theme I spent a lot of time on in my modern Middle East course was the development of Islam during the past 300 years, including 20th century Islamist political and social movements. This, of course, involved a lot of reading and attending conference sessions on those topics. As a result, when asked to teach an upper-level, mostly graduate course at Shippensburg this fall with limited and only occasionally concentrated resources, I felt qualified to take that on from the various possibilities. By the same token, in teaching modern world history and the modern Middle East in the spring, I'm planning to beef up on nationalism, which could give rise to an advanced course on Arab nationalism for Fall 2010. This can also, of course, run through research. During the spring, I realized that empire studies, rather than tribe studies, was really the best comparative context for my dissertation book, and the changes I'm making this summer will reflect that. This will also probably come up in world history, and perhaps set up an upper level course on comparative empires.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Facebook Unblocked

Iran has, for the moment anyway, unblocked Facebook:
"Iran unblocked Facebook just days after the popular social networking website was banned, an Iranian news agency reported Tuesday.

"The Iranian Labor News Agency, or ILNA, said the site is now accessible to ordinary Web surfers. The rescinding of the ban came a day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied he was behind the decision to block the site, which has been used by his challengers to rally supporters for next month's presidential election.

"Reformist challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister, was using Facebook to generate buzz for his campaign. According to the tersely worded ILNA report, the site has been blocked and unblocked numerous times over the last few days."


al-Wefaq and Kafala

As noted previously, Bahrain is moving to scrap the sponsorship system, by which guest workers' status in the country is made dependent on the company that hires them. The business community is now working through parliament to weaken the proposed change:
"In a protest rally staged on Wednesday evening in front of the society's buildings in Manama, several businessmen accused Al Wefaq of 'failing to assume its responsibilities towards a critical sector that fully supports the national economy and the drive to give Bahrainis better employment opportunities'...

"On Tuesday, the lower house of the bicameral parliament said that it wanted to include a clause that would make it mandatory for foreigners to remain at least for one year with their employers before they could move on to another job. Al Wefaq, with 17 of the 40 seats in the lower house, however, voted against the proposal which was passed with a slight majority.

"Businessmen, upset by al Wefaq's attitude, said that it 'will now have to bear all the negative consequences of its attitude towards the national economy and its drive to put the business community under siege.'"

Does this have implications for the position of parliament vis a vis the royal family? Constitutional movements in other Gulf states, and for that matter other times and places, have emerged from the business sector. However, this is just one set of issues, and it's not clear that deeper political shifts are in play that would lead to a sustained attempt to shift the government landscape.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Identity Politics

Matthew Yglesias is spot on:
"The idea that any time a person with a Spanish last name is tapped for a job, his or her entire lifetime of accomplishments is going to be wiped out in a riptide of bitching and moaning about “identity politics” is not a fun concept for me to contemplated. Qualifications like time at Princeton, Yale Law, and on the Circuit Court that work well for guys with Italian names suddenly don’t work if you have a Spanish name. Heaven forbid someone were to decide that there ought to be at least one Hispanic columnist at a major American newspaper.

"Somehow, when George W. Bush affects a Texas accent, that’s not identity politics. When John Edwards gets a VP nomination, that’s not identity politics. But Sonia Sotomayor! Oh my heavens!"


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Facebook Blocked

Iran's government started allowing access to Facebook during the Gaza War, allowing Iranian voices to join the on-line chorus of opposition to Israel. Since then, however, it's become an important tool for the presidential campaigns of Mir Hussein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi, and since the people with the power to censor favor Ahmadinejad, it has apparently been banned.


The Nature of Natures

A couple of years ago, I noted that historians were finally paying attention to Coptic assertions that they are not, in fact, Monophysites. Writing in a chapter called "Christ and salvation" in The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, Peter Boutenoeff explains some of the linguistic confusion on this dispute over whether Christ has two natures:
"Nature be understood generically. Here, nature is a set of defining characteristics or qualities, specifically the sum total of characteristics that make something what it is. It is not always possible to agree on a definitive list of these qualities - it is not a simple matter to define the characteristics which constitute 'human nature', for example - but at least we know that a finite list hypothetically exists, and that such a list defines X as a human person, in contrast to Y as, say, a chimpanzee.

"However, nature may also be understood concretely, in at least two ways. Nature may be concrete by definition, as in the enduring Platonic concept of concretely existing forms. Here, nature is not merely abstract, nor only descriptive, for natures exist in actuality in the realm of ideals. But even if one rejects the Platonic ontology, nature may be reckoned concretely in another way: by association or by consequence. If one asserts that natures do not exist in and of themselves, but only as realised in concretely existing things, then there is no abstract 'apple nature', there are only apples, which can be seen to share certain characteristics. On that basis it could follow that referring to a nature necessarily means referring to a specific hypostasis (a concrete thing or person). This logic, when applied to the person of Christ, can become thorny. For if asserting two natures in Christ indeed leads inexorably to positing two hypostases - two concretely existing beings or 'two sons' - we are on untenable ground.


Secret Settlement Agreement

Over at American Footprints, Nadazhda is questioning why the Washington Post was sitting on information that the Bush administration made a secret agreement with Israeli to allow continued construction to accomodate "natural growth" in settlements Israel expected to keep following hypothetical final status negotiation. She also expresses indignation with the Bush administration for this agreement, in which I heartily join.

I thought about posting on the regional implications of this revelation, but I'm not sure there are any. We all knew Israel wanted to keep a number of settlement blocks and was trying to create facts on the ground to do so. Depending on the settlement areas to which Sharon's government applied this, there's nothing meaty there except for the Bush duplicity toward and betrayal of the Palestinians. The biggest issue is what happened in the collar around eastern Jerusalem, which Israel routinely seeks to cut off from its prospective Arab hinterland.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Uzbek Cotton, Again

Farangis Najibullah looks at the persistence of child labor in Uzbekistan's cotton fields:
"With the potential for fallout from major retailers, critics wonder why adults would not be employed in the cotton fields instead of children, particularly in a country with rampant unemployment. After all, with the largest population in Central Asia with 28 million inhabitants, Uzbekistan has an ample adult work force.

"Uzbek farmers say the answer is simple: Child labor is preferred because it's cheap. Children receive as little as $.03 for every kilogram of cotton they pick.

"Ferghana-based rights activist Bahodir Elboev says the pay is so low that it cannot compare to the money adult men can earn working as seasonal laborers abroad.

"'If a grown-up man works casual jobs he makes at least $6-7 a day and can earn some $200 a month,' Elboev says. 'Farmers never pay anyone $200 a month!'...

"He adds that even if officials were to stop recruiting children for cotton farming, widespread poverty would lead many families to send their children to the fields anyway.

"Many Uzbeks believe that unless farmers receive decent payment for their work, making the cotton industry a lucrative source of income not only for those who sell the product abroad but also for those who work in the fields -- the practice of child labor will remain entrenched in Uzbekistan."

This doesn't mean the problem doesn't go back to the government, as it's ultimately government interests in Uzbekistan that decide how much the farmers get paid.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Best Books, 2008-09

As you can see from my sidebar, over the past few years, I've fallen into the habit of highlighting every May the best books I've read for the first time during the past year as summer reading suggestions for others. During graduate school, things fell into a nice pattern of five works of serious fiction, one of popular fiction, and one non-fiction. In my first year of full-time teaching, however, a funny thing has happened. The balance in my readings shifted heavily toward non-fiction reading mostly in support of my teaching, as I sought both to brush up on areas outside my usual expertise and look for interesting ideas to bring out in class. For that reason, for this year and perhaps future years, the non-fiction category will dominate my recommendation list.


The Waning of the Mediterranean, 1550-1870: A Geohistorical Approach (Faruk Tabak)

The best book I read this year was Faruk Tabak's study of the Mediterranean basin in the early modern period, a work which brilliantly shows the region-wide microhistorical impact of macrohistorical changes, particularly global capital flows and environmental changes. Unlike Fernand Braudel and even more than Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, Tabak has successfully integrated the Mediterranean's eastern and southern shores into the narrative of the whole, providing a new regional context for multiple developments in those areas. As Ariel Salzmann said in the August 2008 International Journal of Middle East Studies: "The rigor of argumentation and weight of evidence leave no way to avoid his conclusion: the Little Ice Age took no prisoners and exempted no culture from its ravages...Nevertheless 'waning' should not be considered synonymous with 'decline.' Farmers who sought higher altitudes revived the arboreal economy of olive trees, adding vines and fodder cereals, and the 'Columbian Exchange' brought intercropping." This book is a must-read for historians of both Europe and the MENA region, as well as those interested in world history and the effects of and human adaptation to global climate change.

One Palestine, Complete (Tom Segev)

Once Zionism took root conflict over Israel/Palestine was probably inevitable, but it wasn't always as present as historical memory makes it. In this work, Segev goes into detail on the Mandate period, which was crucial to the the process of nationalization of both Jewish immigrants and Palestinian Arabs. Segev is an outstanding writer who uses a colorful cast of characters, often in their own words as found in their diaries and letters, to explore the period's trends and the impact of major events. I was, however, left with a small outsider's suspicion of the over-arching narrative in that the events of 1928-9 function as a firm hinge. Before that, almost all conflict is incidental and due to local causes; afterward, it is endemic and national. I'm not say that's entirely wrong, but even though I'm sympathetic to the argument it seems to take things a bit far.

The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 (Peter Brown)

During the past year, the Library of Congress gave Peter Brown it's award for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity. In this book, he shows you one of the reasons why - his ability to make the seemingly strange world of the 1st millennium, which he has done more than anyone else to persuade historians to consider as a unit, intelligible despite the sheer foreignness of its ideas and lifestyles. Despite its name, this book also takes a solid look at Christianity in the Middle East with the ascetic holy men who helped make him famous and the rise of its new form of monotheism, Islam. It is also not just lucid, but entertaining, but like Segev's book discussed above.

The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia (David Commins)

David Commins's book is the first by a historian to focus on Wahhabism, rather than simply treating the religious movement within a history of Saudi Arabia. The author uses his deep knowledge of Islam to highlight the ways in which Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab's teachings were truly a break with the past the earned him the wrath of the Ottoman ulema, before going on to chart the evolution of the Wahhabi movement up through the present and its increasing ties to the militant Islamic revivalism associated with Egypt's Sayyid Qutb. This is an important work for those interested in modern Islam in the Middle East.

Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan (Antonio Giustozzi)

Giustozzi, a historian at the London School of Economics, has applied his training to the study of Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, and, discussing the implications of a crisis in rural society during the years of civil war, has broken down the insurgency into different components with different motives often stemming from completely different origins. He also discusses the U.S./NATO campaign in the country and its often unintended consequences. I wrote a more complete review last summer here.

Literary Fiction

The Narrow Road to Oku (Basho Matsuo)

My current nominee for best travelogue ever written is this haiku diary by the undisputed master of the genre about his 1689 journey to remote areas of northern Honshu. Unfortunately, I can't remember it in enough detail to do it justice, and I'm far from qualified to highlight the ways in which it apparently exists in dialogue with previous poetic works referring to the same places, but I can tell you that it combines realism with transcendence and an awareness of the highest sense of pilgrimage in ways that are difficult to duplicate.

Popular Fiction

The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova)

This is really the only popular fiction I read this year, but it's worthy. I mean, it's about historians! More specifically, it's an excellent modern re-imagining of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Kostova, the daughter of a college professor, attended graduate school at the University of Michigan, and evokes the graduate school milieu with unusual realism, while the historical mystery is based in and around what I see as an exciting milieu, the late medieval Balkans and Anatolia, with many chapters set in Istanbul, one of my favorite cities.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Iranian Candidate Bases

Muhammad Sahimi has another good Iranian election piece, this one on the candidates' social and institution bases:
"Mr. Rezaee does not have an independent base of support among the population. He has always been in the conservative camp. If he attracts any significant vote, it would be from within the conservative camp and, therefore, would only hurt Mr. Ahmadinejad, not the two reformist candidates.

"As described in Part III, all the known established reformist and democratic groups in Iran, except for the National Trust Party of Mr. Karroubi, support Mr. Mousavi. Even the Nationalist-Religious Coalition (see Part II) appears to view Mr. Mousavi’s candidacy positively. In addition, Mr. Khatami has fully supported Mr. Mousavi, and has been campaigning for him. Thus, the popular base of support for Mr. Mousavi consists, presumably, of the middle class (including its lower and upper layers), the educated and the professionals. Many believe that Mr. Mousavi may also have a significant (but unexpressed) support among the more moderate conservatives. In an attempt to attract such voters, Mr. Mousavi has sometimes referred to himself as a 'principlist reformist.'

"All the reformists who are unhappy with the slow rate of progress and the more moderate reformist groups, such as the IIPF and the Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization (see Part II), support Mr. Karroubi. Interestingly, they are the same people whom Mr. Karroubi used to call the 'radicals,' and was strongly opposed to when he was the Speaker of the 6th Majles. Mr. Karroubi does have support in some provinces, such as Lorestan, and among more conservative and traditional layers of society who are unhappy with the conservatives.

"Mr. Ahmadinejad’s main support base is the poor and uneducated in small towns and villages. In addition, he can count on the votes of some layers of the Basij militia who blindly follow the orders that are given to them, either by their religious leaders, or by their military commanders. But, altogether, they make up at most 15% of eligible voters. Practically speaking, Mr. Ahmadinejad has no base of support in larger cities and towns."

He goes on to say that high turnout is likely to hurt Ahmadinejad, as that would make it less likely vote fraud and intimidation would have an impact and his base is seen as more likely to vote. I'm not sure how true that is; there seems to be a lot of energy around the reformists this time around, as well, in a way there wasn't in 2005 given the weakness of their candidates in that election and the disappointments of the Khatami years.

Mousavi's appeal remains the biggest wild card in this election. In the West he's pegged as a reformist candidate; however, Sahimi goes on to highlight his support from old guard pragmatists associated with former president and 2005 runner-up Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, as well as certain conservative elements. His support, in other words, is broad, but is it deep enough in some combination of sectors to put him over the top? He crosses these boundaries because he's an old hand well-connected across the political landscape and known and trusted by the older generation. What might work against him, however, is that the flip side of this is his association in the minds of Iran's huge youth population with older establishment figures whom, at least in 2005, they saw as discredited.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Four

The Council of Guardians has approved the four major candidates in Iran's presidential election. Muhammad Sahimi profiles them here.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Saadiyat Island Workers

Human Rights Watch is calling on the future occupants of Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island to stand against the abuse of the migrant workers building the infrastructure:
"The 80-page report, "‘The Island of Happiness': Exploitation of Migrant Workers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi," found that while the UAE government has moved to improve housing conditions and ensure the timely payment of wages in recent years, many labor abuses remain commonplace. International institutions planning to open branches on the island - including the Guggenheim, New York University (NYU), and the French Museum Agency (responsible for the Louvre Abu Dhabi) - should urgently obtain enforceable contractual guarantees that construction companies will protect workers' fundamental rights on their projects, Human Rights Watch said...

"Based on interviews with migrant workers, and meetings with UAE and French government officials, as well as officers of international institutions and corporations with projects on the island, the Human Rights Watch report documents a cycle of abuse that leaves migrant workers deeply indebted, badly paid, and unable to stand up for their rights or even quit their jobs.

"The UAE government and the authorities responsible for developing Saadiyat Island have failed to tackle the root causes of worker abuse: unlawful recruiting fees, broken promises of wages, and a sponsorship system that gives an employer virtually complete power over his workers...

"Research on Saadiyat Island did show that authorities have taken some positive steps. Although workers' accommodations were still under construction when Human Rights Watch visited the island, they appeared to be relatively hygienic and not overcrowded. TDIC, the government-owned company overseeing the island's development, has sought contractual guarantees from construction companies that they will not confiscate workers' passports, use forced labor, or commit other abuses.

"Human Rights Watch contacted the construction companies, architectural firms, and international institutions working on the island to alert them to the need to take steps to ensure workers on their projects are not abused. Many did not reply to our letters. Among the Guggenheim, New York University, and the French Museum Agency (responsible for the Louvre Abu Dhabi project), only the Agency has taken any steps to seek meaningful contractual guarantees from TDIC to allow independent monitoring of workers' rights, but even the Agency's contract lacks guarantees or provisions allowing it to enforce workers' rights."

I'm particularly looking at NYU here, as that institution is supposed to be a bastion of liberalism.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Cities without Slums

Matthew Chebatoris reports on the progress of an anti-slum initiative in Morocco:
"Although Morocco has become a popular tourist destination for those seeking an exotic, yet safe location, prior to the initiation of 'Cities without Slums' approximately 1.5 million Moroccans lived in slums on the outskirts of the country’s largest cities. According to Fatna Chihab, the head of social housing at the Ministry for Habitat and Urban Planning, 'Slums are a problem all over the developing world. Morocco’s originality is that his majesty has decided to tackle the issue head on.' To date, roughly 43 percent of the 300,000 families identified as living in urban slums have been re-housed, claimed Chihab. The new urban areas are being purposefully designed with schools, hospitals and community centers incorporated into the plans. (United Mediterranean Council of Industries [UMCI] News, April 21). Additional steps are being taken to provide better living conditions for the country’s rural community. Initiatives are currently in place to bring electricity and running water to rural villages as a measure to discourage poor residents from migrating to urban areas and complicating the slum eradication efforts underway. (UMCI News, April 21)"

The connection between slums and terrorism in Morocco is a theme in Laila Lalami's new novel, Secret Son.


Kuwaiti Election Results

Kuwait's election results are in, and the big winners were tribal candidates and independents of many orientations. Gregory Gause has a great overview here, and predicts that with the re-election of key opponents of the Al Sabah dynasty, the contentiousness which led to these elections is not over.

That is not to say the elections are without consequences, however. At Global Voices Online, Amer al-Hilal highlights posts about the historic election of four women to the Parliament. This is undoubtedly a step forward for gender equity in this country where women could not vote until three years ago. Kristin Diwan notes another, more subtle, transformation in the political landscape (quoted with permission from a professional list-serve):
"The other area of dynamism in Kuwaiti politics is coming from the 'tribal' outer districts. I attended a HUGE and very well planned rally for women in the south of Kuwait near Ahmedi, and was duly impressed by the energy, which may have been amplified by the fact that it was held in an amusement park and most of the women brought a bevy of happy children in tow. As observant Kuwaiti social scientists have been telling us for years, these relatively late arriving citizens of Kuwait are becoming better educated and less willing to accept their role as 'service' candidates quietly accepting government jobs for loyalty to the rulers - especially as there are less jobs and services to give to their steadily increasing numbers. They may mobilize as a 'tribe,' but their complaints are essentially economic and full of historical resentment of the better off 'hadhar' of Kuwait's inner constituencies. The democratically elected parliament gives them the perfect vehicle to press their economic demands, and goes a long way in explaining why many of the merchant-led Kuwaitis who championed Kuwaiti democracy can now contemplate an unconstitutional dissolution of it."

To clarify, the hadhar are descendants of those who lived in Kuwait City in the early 20th century.

To return to Gause's bottom line, however:
"The key to the political stasis is the unwillingness of the Al Sabah family to permit senior family members, including the Prime Minister, to face confidence votes in the parliament. Rather than do that, the government resigns and, sometimes, parliament is dissolved. This is not because the last Prime Minister, Shaykh Nasir al-Muhammad, could not get majority support in the parliament. He probably could have had 35 votes (out of the 50) at least if the confidence motions (called 'istijwab' here --- a 'demand for an answer' in Arabic that involves addressing specific questions/charges to a minister and then having a vote of confidence) had been allowed to go to a vote. I think it is an unwillingness on the part of senior members of the family to tolerate such a precedent being set."

Gause is right on what the ruling family is doing and why. I've been critical of opposition MP's for pushing red lines when they're not going to get anywhere with it and when there appears to be no public support for their efforts, but that doesn't mean I don't think the royals should be able to avoid questioning.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Graduation Music

I thought Colgate's use of bagpipes instead of a band or orchestra made for a great sound for the processional and recessional at today's commencement ceremony.

I'm not sure, however, what to make of the use of "The Minstrel Boy" as the recessional.

In any case, congratulations to all the new Colgate graduates!


Friday, May 15, 2009

Satellite Election TV

Tomorrow is election day in Kuwait. I haven't followed the campaign at all, but found this fascinating:
"'The mushrooming spur of satellite stations that been established especially for this occasion is something unprecedented in the history of Kuwait. Currently, there are 16 private satellite stations in addition to four run by the government, which are all participating in the election campaign in a way or another, in addition to 15 daily newspapers that focus on the development of the election on a daily basis,' said Abdul Monem Al Sisy, political analyst and expert in parliamentarian affairs in Kuwait.

"He said the government trying hard to curb any violations. 'The government pledged to curb serious violations in the election and not tolerate any misuse of media or money in the election. The mission of the government seems impossible, because many of the channels, which are owned by political blocs, are already being accused of using unscrupulous tactics against their competitors, with no sign that the government is willing to interfere,' he said."

Here's a related news blip:
"The Ministry of Information has warned the Kuwaiti TV satellite channels against telecasting an election rally which was held in Adailiya by a candidate running for the May 2009 parliamentary elections from the Third Constituency, reports Al-Seyassah daily. It has been reported during the rally the candidate humiliated some tribes, political blocs and MPs."

Islamists and tribal candidates are expected to win tomorrow, forming the core of a Parliament just as if not more hostile to the government than the last.


Parakeet Abuse

Mahmood's Den is back, or at least nosing back, with a post today on a dangerous bird trap.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Wahhabism in Yemen

It's worth taking a look at how Wahhabi Islam actually spreads, which is many contexts is unrelated to opposition to westernization. Here's what Shelagh Weir says in her book A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen:
"One of the remarkable features of the Sunni-Wahhabi movement was that it flourished in the birthplace and heartlands of Zaydi-Shi'ism. This was largely because it tapped a hitherto dormant resentment of key tenets of Zaydi doctrine still manifest there - especially the sayyid claim to religious authority and social superiority on the grounds of religious descent, which Wahhabis felt contravened Islamic ideals by promoting inequality.

"The most public and active converts to Wahhabism in Razih were shibab (young men -ed.) from some qabili and most 'butcher' families (lower states -ed.). These young men, who were struggling to find work and marriage payments, and were traditionally subordinate to their elders and 'betters,' were attracted to Islah (which they equated with Wahhabism) by its welfare program, and to Wahhabism by its egalitarianism. They credited their education for their conversion. In contrast to their mostly illiterate fathers, who had depended on religious specialists for guidance, they had attended the first secondary schools (which opened in Razih in the 1980s), and had studied the Sunni texts then flooding Yemen and formed their own opinions...

Many Razihi shaykhs also supported Wahhabi-Sunnism. They resented their unequal marriage relations with sayyids, and being humiliatingly rebuffed when they applied to marry sharifahs. They also hoped the pro-shaykh and anti-sayyid thrust of Islah would strengthen their positions and bring material benefits, as had happened among shaykhs in the Sa'dah region."

It is in the social and political context that specific religious practices gained meaning as signs of identity and ideology.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Ceci in Egypt

Ceci Sibony, the closest thing our century has produced to Benjamin of Tudela, is back at blogging, with four posts on her time in Egypt: "The Recent History of the Egyptian Jewish Community", "Contemporary Egyptian Jewish Life", "A Passover Seder in Egypt", and "Perspectives on Israel and Arab-Israeli Understandings".

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Sponsorship Reform

The worst aspect of the migrant labor system in the Gulf is the sponsorship system, where workers' ability to stay in the country is dependent on the whim of their employer, which they aren't allowed to change. Bahrain is planning to reform that system:
"Labour Minister Majeed Al Allawi on Monday said Bahrain would implement a new labour law on August 1 that allows foreign workers to switch jobs without their existing employer's consent. 'This is the end of the sponsorship system, which does not differ much from slavery,' the minister said.

"The new law, a major demand by human rights activists, allows foreign workers to move to new jobs simply by informing their existing employers of their intention to end the contract. The notice should be made through registered mail and according to the timeframe stipulated in the employment contract, but must not exceed three months.

"'The new employer will then register the worker with the labour authorities, but he or she will have to produce the end of contract notice sent to the former employer,' Al Allawi said."

The business community is finding reasons to oppose this, of course, so there might be delays or adjustments in final implementation. From the article, it sounds like Bahrain is taking this step now hoping to promote nativization in the work force. If guest workers gain more rights and can start improving their conditions, there will be less incentive for companies to prefer them to Bahrainis.

Seen from this angle, however, the trick will be whether unemployed Bahrainis will accept many of the jobs traditionally done by guest workers, or whether their expectations will still exceed what guest workers would ask for. Ending the sponsorship system doesn't resolve the split labor market or the understandable preference of many Bahrainis to take advantage of their generous welfare state.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Historicizing Arab Blogs

An article I wrote, "Historicizing Arab blogs: Reflections on the transmission of ideas and information in Middle Eastern history," is now up at Arab Media & Society. There are also plenty of other interesting articles which I hope to read once I get through some end-of-semester grading.

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Saturday, May 02, 2009

10 Conceptual Sins

Eric Davis has a great post at Tabsir: "10 Conceptual Sins in Analyzing Middle East Politics." You really need to read it.