Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Kuwait’

Is the GCC Unravelling?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th November, 2017

C0F4FE57-2826-47BC-B8AE-6C6F8B4B45BCThe Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, more commonly known by its previous name, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has been in existence since 1981 and aims at a degree of economic integration between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman as well as cooperation in other fields, but some of its more ambitious plans have been quietly shelved. Following the launch of the euro there was talk of moving towards a single GCC currency, to be called the khaleeji (Gulfi), but Oman said it would need to opt out and enthusiasm waned elsewhere. Then at the time of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, tentative moves were made to bring two other Arab monarchies, Jordan and Morocco, into the fold, despite neither being in the Gulf. However, the one obvious geographical absentee absentee is Iraq, which overthrew it’s short-lived monarchy in 1958, was never a serious contender while Saddam Hussein was in power and has been equally unpalatable to the Sunni Arab monarchs since Shia-dominated governments have been in charge in Baghdad following the 2003 US-led invasion. When there was stronger than usual unrest among Bahrain’s majority Shi’i population in 2011, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in troops to help the Al Khalifa monarchy quash it. Since then, Iran has been the focus of much of the GCC’s animosity, notably from Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as Tehran’s rival for regional hegemony. But since this summer, another deeply complicating factor has emerged: the embargo of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, mainly because of the activities of the Doha-based TV channel, Al Jazeera, and Qatar’s alleged cosying up to Iran (with which it shares a gigantic gas field). Kuwait has been trying to mediate, while the wily ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos, is keeping well out of it. The Saudi Foreign Minister the other day downplayed the importance of the row, but it has inevitably made the facade of GCC unity crumble. And if the standoff continues for long, the GCC would be in real danger of unravelling.

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Resurrecting Heritage

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 5th November, 2017

50A7EEC0-E10B-4108-B0DD-F23EE99C4BB1Tourists who visit Britain often sigh that half the country seems to be a museum: a cornucopia of historic buildings, gardens and magnificent vistas. On that count, Italy is even more spectacular, let’s admit it; I will never tire of discovering fresh antiquities and stunning palazzi in Rome. But here in the Gulf, where I am once more at the moment, heritage is often harder to find. Of course, with the notable exception of majestic Oman — with its castles and forts and jewel of a capital, Muscat — the Gulf states are relatively modern, and in the case of parts of the UAE in particularly, aggressively modern, championing the new and the awe-inspiring. Yet even in Dubai there is now a realisation that both for its intrinsic value for the local population and to lure visitors, emirates and their cities need to treasure what heritage they have. Or, in some cases, resurrect it.

9778D95D-F65F-4AC0-9023-3BB6F5852BABThe most impressive example of that resurrection is the Souq Waqif in Qatar’s capital, Doha, with its pedestrianised streets, reconstructed market shops and sidewalk cafes. Critics may sneer it is more Disney than authentic, but hats off to the Qataris for a noble effort that is a pleasant place to stroll or stop off for a juice on a cooler evening. Here in Dubai, where I am now, a massive amount of regeneration work in one if the historic districts of Bur Dubai, Al Shindagha, is underway — frustratingly cordoned off at the moment — as new wind towers are erected, pathways laid and old buildings restored. At least UAE does have some vestiges that can be rescued. Others in the region are not so fortunate. Virtually all of Kuwait’s heritage was demolished in the 20th century — the Iraqi occupiers in 1990-1991 adding their own dose of destructiveness while they were there. It is fine being modern, even ultra-modern, but a country’s identity is only retained if one foot is kept firmly in the built past.

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Postcards from the Middle East

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th April, 2015

Postcards from the Middle Eastwetlands LebanonThe British naturalist and Christian missionary, Chris Naylor, has spent much of his working life so far in Arab lands, and like many others before him he was seduced by the difference from Britain. He and his wife’s first appointment in 1989 was to Kuwait, which is not the easiest or most interesting place in the Gulf for an expatriate to live, though they managed to make a visit by car the following year to see some of the great historical sites in Iraq, Mercifully, they were on leave in the UK  that summer when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, though they had to fret about colleagues and friends (and all their belongings) left behind. Four years later, by now with two small children, they moved to Amman in Jordan, before settling in the Beka’a Valley in Lebanon and later Beirut for well over a decade. Accordingly, Naylor’s paperback book of memories, Postcards from the Middle East (Lion, £8.99), is really a selection of postcards from the Gulf and the neighbourhood plus a very long letter from Lebanon, to which the family became deeply attached. Initially working as a teacher, Naylor switched to being a conservation activist and administrator and much of the book is about the wetlands in Lebanon where he did much of his work, but seen against the counterpoint of political developments, including the Syrian occupation, 9/11, Rafik Hariri’s assassination and the Israeli-Hezbollah war. Family unity (a third child now having materialised) clearly kept the Naylors grounded through stressful times, as did the fellowship of Lebanon’s large Christian community. But the author clearly felt an empathy with the Lebanese in particular that transcended ethnic and religious boundaries and which inevitably left him feeling a sense of loss when eventually he and his family decided to relocate back to England. This book therefore has many threads and while specialists in the Middle East may not find much of great import in it, though the conservation material may well be new to them, as an account of cross-cultural accommodation and acceptance as well as of the learning process needed to live in a wildly different society it certainly has its pertinence and charm.


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Easter in Ahmadi

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 7th April, 2012

As a Muslim country, Kuwait does not acknowledge Easter, but the state’s constitution recognises the freedom to practise religion, so the more than 300,000 Christians in the country can go to the masses and other Holy Week services at the Catholic cathedral in Kuwait city or at various other churches and house worship groups in the capital or in the oil town of  Ahmadi. Only around 200 or 300 Kuwaitis are Christian, believed to be the descendants of people who came to the area from northerly parts of the Ottoman Empire more than a century agao, but now completely assimilated. But in more recent times it has not been possible for a non-Muslim to be naturalised as a Kuwaiti; in fact, naturalisation is very difficult in general, unless someone has roots in the area dating back generations. That contrasts with the situation in Bahrain — the only other state in the Gulf that has a small community of indigenous Christians — which does offer naturalisation to some foreigners who settle there long-term, though that is not often a straightforward process. So the vast majority — 99.9% — of Christians in Kuwait are foreigners, the biggest communities coming from the Philippines, India and other South Asian countries. The Catholic church in Ahmadi, where I am staying, has been offering Easter masses in English, Tagalog and several Indian languages and other church communities, including a small group of Anglicans, have made their own celebrations. Only Islam is taught in Kuwaiti schools, however, and when a member of the ruling family recently suggested that the Armenian community should be able to open a new church here, she was told firmly by the religious authorities to stay out of affairs that should not be her concern. Christian evangelisation is strictly forbidden and as in much of the Islamic world, apostasy is a serious offence for Muslims in Kuwait. Christians are hardly likely to complain about that, however, as they know they are far better off here, in being allowed to worship in dedicated places, unlike over the border in Saudi Arabia.

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Running, Walking and Writing

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 5th April, 2012

I’ve never had the slightest desire to jog, let alone run, and to be brutally frank have always felt rather sorry for the poor guys and gals trotting past me along the road, attached to their iPod, bound up in their own thoughts and physical discomfort. But after reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running maybe I shouldn’t pity them. The Japanese novelist appears to have been fully conscious of who and what were around him as he did his daily runs, yearly marathons and what sounds like a truly ghastly ultramarathon. Of course he was aware of the protest in his muscles, and he can hardly have failed to notice that essentially he was setting himself tests, again and again. Anyway, it seems to have given him inspiration in his craft as a writer and anything that does that cannot be sneezed at. And when I think about it, I actually do something similar myself — walking long distances, rather slowly, preferably on the flat. I’ve walked along sizeable sections of the coasts of Cuba and Mauritius, to mention just two. Walking by the sea for hours, stopping every so often to take in the view, or have a drink if there is a conveniently located cafe or bar, even chat to some local, certainly helps me clear my head after long hours at my desk, but it also helps me think through what I am working on at the moment. When I leave the office in Ahmadi where I am located now and head off along the road to Kuwait City I’ll be observing and thinking, maybe even dreaming, as usual. So, OK, Mr Murakami, having read your book and thought about it, I don’t think you (or other runners) are mad after all. You just use a speeded-up version of what I do myself: Walking and Writing.

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Turned Away from Bahrain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd April, 2012

Over the past 20 years or so, Bahrain has been one of my favourite ports of call. When I was working in Kuwait for extended periods in 2004-2006, in particular, I often used to pop down for the weekend, as Manama was so friendly and relaxed. But alas things have changed somewhat since the events of early last year. This morning I flew in, hoping for a couple of days of winding down before doing some work elsewhere in the Gulf only to find that nowdays even those of us with European passports don’t just hand over 5 dinars and get a visa in 30 seconds. A significant number of people coming in on my flight (and those following) were taken aside while their documents were consulted against the Immigration Department’s records. My passport was held for almost four hours before a senior officer came out, bearing documents from my file, including printouts of tweets I published last year experssing dismay at the crackdown on demonstrations at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout and the security forces’ intervention in a major hospital where some of the wounded were being treated. Politely but firmly the officer said I would not be allowed into the country, adding that “no-one has been killed in Bahrain” and that “the doctors who were taken away were revolutionaries who were trying to overthrow the King.” Doubtless one day objective history will set the record straight; at least I hope so. Anyway, I had some hasty rearranging to do and moved on to Doha in Qatar. Apparently I have now joined (Lord) Eric Avebury and others who have campaigned on human rights issues relating to Bahrain in becoming persona non grata there. It’s a shame, because I still consider myself to be a true friend of Bahrain and of the Bahraini people. I can now only look forward to a time when it might once again become a more open society. And in the meantime, Qatar — home to Al Jazeera, amongst other things — will now become my default Gulf destination of choice.


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Iran and the West: Is War Inevitable?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th January, 2012

This lunchtime at the National Liberal Club I was a member of a panel discussing the inevitability or otherwise of war between the West and Iran, held under the auspices of the Global Strategy Forum, which is chaired by Lord Lothian (aka Michael Ancram). The place was packed as the subject could hardly have been more topical and there were three fine other speakers: Sir Malcolm Rifkind (former Foreign Secretary), Sir Jeremy Greenstock (former UK Ambasador to the UN) and Dr Arhsin Adib-Moghaddam, a colleague of mine at SOAS. There was sufficient variety of views for a lively debate and some useful input from the audience, which included many Ambassadors, several members of the House of Lords and a number of journos, including Frank Gardner and Nick Childs from the BBC. We speakers were allotted just eight minutes each, so I used my time first to make the general point that whereas there are sometimes justifiable wars — recent examples being the Coalition that ousted the Iraqis from Kuwait in 1991, and the intervention last year in Libya under the principle of Responsibility to Protect — in general War is an admission of failure. I do not believe that war with Iran is either inevitable or desirable, despite the regime’s apparent desire to develop nuclear weapons (strongly denied officially in Tehran, of course). I worry about the rachetting up of pressure on Tehran by several Western governments, including and in particular that of Britain, whose own history of interference in Iran’s affairs has an inglorious past. I stressed that an atomosphere needs to be created in which there could be meaningful multilateral talks, with no pre-conditions (a view contested by Malcolm Rifkind). We should also respect Iran as a great civilization, I argued, as well as a country whose people understandably feel surrounded and threatened, not least by US bases on the other side of the narrow Persian Gulf. And I concluded by proposing a Middle East conference that would look at the whole region — including the Palestinian issue — and not just Iran in isolation. All the countries of the region, including Israel, shnold be present, and although Western countries, including the EU and US, might facilitate such a gathering ( a point also made by Jeremy Greenstock), we in the West should not try to run the show or dictate an outcome. That era has passed, and rightly so.

[photo by Jacqueline Jinks of JF, Lord Lothian, Sir Jeremy Grenstock and Dr Arhsin Adib-Moghaddam]

Link: (though site still under construction):

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Istanbul: The Arabs Have Come!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 26th July, 2009

Istiklal CaddesiGulf Arabs who can afford it tend to flee their region during summer. Given their climate, who can blame them? Since the 1960s, London has been a favourite summer destination — many Gulf families own houses or appartments along or off the Edgware Road and in Mayfair — but Beirut and Cairo date back even further. There are Lebanese villages like the ‘cherry capital’ Hammana up in the mountains behind Beirut that become Little Kuwait in July and August. However, this year’s vacation location of choice for Gulf Arabs appears to be Turkey. There were loads of them on the ferry that took me across the Sea of Marmara on my way from Izmir to Istanbul last night and Istanbul’s top hotels are awash with Gulf families: the fathers and the (often depressingly fat) children kitted out in standard US leisure gear, the mothers swathed head to foot in black abbayas. What on earth these ladies make of the scenes around them, God only knows. One couldn’t possibly ask. Last night was more boisterous than ever along Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s main pedestrianised drag, with its side streets housing innumerable bars, restaurants, nightclubs and saunas catering to every possible taste. Or even on the more sedate avenue, Halaskargazi Caddesi, north of Taksim Square, where I have been staying on this visit to Turkey’s main city. Outside a car hire firm, whose widow posters of special offers are all in Arabic, a spectacular blonde transvestite prostitute was standing late last night in a gold lamé dress cut low to show off her sumptuous breast implants. The male punters walking past, both Arab and Turk, had no doubt at what they were looking at — and in several cases, clearly panting after; but what about the Arab ladies in their black shrouds?

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