Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘UAE’

Keepers of the Golden Shore

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th February, 2016

Keepers of the Golden ShoreThe transformation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from impoverished sheikhdoms along the Trucial Coast to a dynamic post-modern society with one of the fastest rates of economic and population growths in the world is surely one of the most remarkable development trajectories of the second half of the 20th century. As a country, the UAE has only existed since 1971; previously, the seven emirates had survived with often indistinct borders between them drawn in the sand, all under the tutelage of Great Britain as the protecting power. It was largely thanks to the UK’s cost-cutting decision to withdraw from East of Suez that concentrated the minds of the local rulers that they would do better in an uncertain world as a single identity rather than as seven, though Ras Al Khaimah dragged its heels for a while. Bahrain and Qatar could have been part of the new enterprise but decided to go their own way. Subsequently, oil revenues helped Abu Dhabi become the strongest kid o the block, though Dubai’s embracing of economic diversification and in-your-face self promotion has made it the one emirate of which that everyone has heard.

UAE 1950sIt would be tempting to think that the above is all the really matters when one considers the history of the UAE, but as Michael Quentin Morton’s new book Keepers of the Golden Shore (Reaktion Books, £25) recounts, archaeological findings show significant human activity in this region at a time when the climate was more benign than it is now. Moreover, pearl fishing brought periods of prosperity to Gulf communities, albeit unevenly distributed, for several centuries. But the bottom fell out of the pearl market around 1930 in the face of competition from Japanese cultured pearls and the impact of the Great Depression. The following two decades, including the Second World War, were a period of great hardship for Gulf Arabs, including widespread malnutrition, causing some local people to leave. The subsequent exploitation of oil dramatically changed that situation so that now the UAE’s hunger is for overseas migrant labour and the newest and flashiest of everything.

Sheikh ZayedQuentin Morton, who grew up in the Gulf, writes with calm authority and rational judgment about the often passionate rivalry between the various emirates and their ruling families, several of which engaged in fratricide and other dastardly acts. He rightly underlines the particular significance of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan (1918-2004), ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the UAE, without fully explaining his charisma. I was in Bahrain when Zayed died and the public mourning even there was dramatic and sincerely felt. Perhaps because he does not want to get his book banned in the UAE and neighbouring countries, the author is a little circumspect in his treatment of the bloody suppression of the Pearl roundabout protests in Bahrain in 2011. But for anyone who wants to understand from where what is now the UAE emerged and how that happened this is a most useful and readable account..

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BBC Arabic Festival 2015

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 20th October, 2015

imageArab cinema is remarkably little known in the United Kingdom, disgracefully given Britain’s long involvement in the Arab world and — even more importantly — given the high quality of much of the current output, both fiction and non-fiction, across North Africa and the Middle East. Arab film has come on a long way since the black-and-white Egyptian comedies that still feature on so many Arab TV channels. The so-called Arab Spring (a misnomer, if ever there was one) unsurprisingly has been the catalyst for a number of really powerful new movies both from and about various Arab lands. Last autumn, the BBC ran an Arabic film festival over a weekend, with free showings at the Radio Theatre in New Broadcasting House. The most striking, for me was some of the work out of Syria, made in the most difficult of conditions. This year, there is another BBC Arabic Festival to be held over the last weekend in October (i.e., next week), which alas I shall miss as I will be at the Liberal International Congress in Mexico City.

imageHowever, last night I got a sneak preview of two of the highlighted films of the festival, of which 15-minute edits were shown at a launch event at the House of Commons. Abo Gabi’s Blue is a heart-rending documentary about Ayham, the young piano player who performed around the streets of the besieged Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Syria, bringing hope and sometimes joy in the middle of suffering and the barbarism of war. Abo Gabi is himself a Syrian-Palestinian musician and singer and much of his film was captured through an intermittent skype connection, making this an intense and dramatic experience. Of an entirely different nature is Pregnant and in Chains, a documentary directed by Christine Garabedian about the fate of female migrant workers in the UAE who get illegally pregnant, in other words outside marriage. Immigration officials at Dubai’s international airport are always on the lookout for any Filipinas, Bangladeshis and other female domestic workers showing signs of pregnancy and also trying to leave the country; if caught, they are liable to imprisonment, even when their pregnancy is the result of rape, sometimes at the hands of their Emirati employer. Behind the UAE’s benevolent and modern facade is the reality of a very conservative society, in which there is a very different concept of human rights from those prevalent in the West. In their different ways, these two films give much food for thought. The Festival as a whole promises to be a feast.

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Dubai’s Creek

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th May, 2015

imageDubai has become synonymous with extravagant shopping malls and high-rise buildings, not least the current tallest edifice in the world, the Burj Khalifa. But when I have had free time in the city I have always gravitated towards the Creek, in the old city centre, which is one of the few places that hasn’t changed much in the 30-odd years that I have been coming here. The little passenger boats that shuttle people back and forth across the waterway are still there, and only charge 1 dirham (20p) for the ride — by far the best value attraction for any visitor. The area on the Bur Dubai shoreline has been smartened up, with several of the beautiful nobility’s houses with their wind towers tastefully restored, not least Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum’s house, which also doubles as a museum, with several rooms of fascinating black-and-white photographs of Dubai before modernisation and the oil boom. When I first came to the city, the airport (now very much downtown) was surrounded by desert and development along the Creek petered out very quickly. Lovely wooden dhows from Iran used to moor alongside the Deira waterfront, spilling their cargoes onto the walkway, while their crews, mainly from the Arabic-speaking areas of the Abadan coast, stared in a mixture of wonder and apprehension at the comparative sophistication of Dubai. These days they are fewer and have to tie up further up the Creek, somewhat out of view. I find it extraordinary that most Western tourists and expats working in Dubai prefer the malls and now the new marina to the Creek. It’s their loss, and our gain, for those of us who join the locals and the labourers who keep the area so vibrant.

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Kurdish International Liberal Congress

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 10th December, 2013

Arif BawecaniParti Serbesti KurdistanKurdish political parties, both in the Middle East and in exile, have tended to be Marxist in orientation, or at least Socialist, so the idea that Liberal Democracy might be appealing to Kurds is intriguing (though of course there are some Kurds originating from Turkey who have joined the UK Liberal Democrats). Dividing his time between Oslo and Erbil (in Iraq’s Kurdistan autonomous region, KRG) Arif Bawecani, a Kurd of Iranian origin, formed and now leads a party, the Parti Serbesti Kurdistan (PSK), which he wants to align with Liberal forces worldwide. This past weekend I went to Oslo to attend the First Kurdish International Liberal Congress hosted by the PSK, which brought together not just Kurds from Iran and the KRG (Iraq) but other national minorities, notably ethnic Arab Ahwazis from the Iranian coastal region, also living in exile. Foreign visitors apart from myself included a Liberal (Venstre) from Norway and a French member of the International Network of Liberal Women, as well as one US Democrat and one Republican, and a couple of human rights activists from Dubai — a modest and somewhat heterodox group which nonetheless led to some interesting speeches and discussions. In my presentation, I defined from a Liberal perspective the key words of the opening article of the Universal Declaration of Human rights: freedom, equality, dignity, rights and brotherhood, in the context of diversity and tolerance. I don’t know how far this will help the PSK, or the Gorran (Change) Movement from KRG, which was also represented, develop their ideology but it will be interesting to see what evolves.

Link: http://www.psk2006.org/index.php?lang=en

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A Diamond in the Desert

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th April, 2012

By coincidence, an article in the Guardian appeared raising questions about Abu Dhabi’s ability to complete its Guggenheim Museum on time just as I was finishing reading Jo Tatchell’s book about the city, A Diamond in the Desert. Subtitled “behind the scenes in the world’s richest city”, the book does what it says on the cover, in other words provide an insider-outsider’s view of a rapidly changing city in which she grew up and to which she returned on a prolonged visit years later. It’s sobering to think that when I was born, Abu Dhabi was a very small settlement of predominantly palm-frond huts, clustered round the local sheikh’s modest dwelling, whereas now it is a densely populated city, criss-crossed by 8-lane highways and boasting several mind-blowingly luxurious hotels. But unlike Dubai, just a couple of hours’ drive away, Abu Dhabi has not gone down the route of ultimate flash, what one might call the Beckham lifestyle. Instead, as the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as well as the main city of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, it has chosen in recent years to reinvent itself as a great cultural centre, with an island of different museums which will house some of the creme de la creme of world Art. This could be seen as an idealistic attempt to recreate the spirit of Cordoba, an era of cultural flowering and tolerance that characterised that southern Spanish city under Islamic rule. But as Jo Tatchell makes clear, there is a difficult dynamic in modern Abu Dhabi’s development; while wanting to be seen as a global cultural centre, it nonetheless wishes to remain essentially Emirati, despite the fact that 80 per cent of the population are migrant workers, notably from the Indian sub-continent and the Philippines. Moreover, many of Abu Dhabi’s gilded youth live in a dream world of social privilege and conspicuous consumption that has little connection with such lofty aims. There are many things which disturb Ms Tatchell, including the recognition that tolerance is limited in the Emirates (criticising the Ruling family or indeed the country is a complete no-no) and that expats — especially the Indians — will never be living on an equal footing with the indigenous Arabs. Nonetheless, the author retains a fondness for the place, albeit nostalgic for aspects of the past that have disappeared — a view I whole-heartedly share.

(A Diamond in the Desert is available in paperback in England, published by Sceptre)

 

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UAE: Will Life Begin at 40?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 2nd December, 2011

To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the United Arab Emirates becoming a unified and independent nation, the London Embassy was bound to put the boat out — and that it well and truly did last night, at a massive reception at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in Bayswater. While an enormous ice sculpture celebrating the anniversary gently melted in the heat of the crush, guests were entertained by a show of traditional dancing by members of the UAE military academy (all men, of course), twirling their sticks and in some cases imitiation Uzis. The Ambassador, Abdulrahman Ghanem Almutaiwee, gave a short speech in which he remarked how far the UAE had come during its short lifetime. Forty years ago, the emirates’ main income was from pearl diving and dried fish, whereas now it has moved beyond the oil boom to becoming a diversified economy with many dynamic businesses, not least the two flagship airlines, Emirates and Etihad, both of which were sponsors of tonight’s event. Emiratis now only make up a small percentage of the population of the UAE — especially in Dubai — and there are approximately 100,000 Brits living there. The question now is: in what direction will the country go? Tourism is still big business and there are hopes that even more visitors will be lured by the creation of new museums and other cultural attractions, as well as the staple winter sun and sea. Compared with its giant neighbour Saudi Arabia, the UAE is quite liberal, but only up to a point. And that is also another big question for the future: to what extent the Emiratis are prepared to turn their country into something not only cosmopolitan but also tolerant of all diversity — a genuinely multicultural state. In the meantime, the UAE has literally billions of petrodollars to invest, as it has been doing in Britain and elsewhere. Moreover, the Ambassador reminded us that it gives one per cent of its GDP as overseas aid to developing countries, well above the UN-recommended target.

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41 Years of Oman’s “Renaissance”

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 18th November, 2011

Omani Embassies all round the world have been celebrating Oman’s National Day today, in London’s case with a sumptuous reception at the Carlton Tower Hotel in Knightsbridge. Gulf Arab hospitality is invariably generous. There were no speeches and no-one acknowledged (at least in my hearing) the obvious landmark that has just been passed: with the killing of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman has become the Arab world’s longest serving ruler. Not that one should draw parallels between the two men; far from it. Having gently ousted his father in 1970, young Sultan Qaboos set about bringing his country into the modern world, with such daring innovations as paved roads and electric light. When I first started going there, there were still communities on the Musandam peninsula (itself then still a no-go area for many foreigners) which were only accessible by sea. But in contrast to some of the flashier emirates of the UAE, Oman under Sultan Qaboos’s guidance has maintained many of its traditions and its heritage. Muscat is by far the most charming cpaital in the Gulf. The country had enough oil to lift its people out of poverty, but not so much that it spoilt them. Indeed, the oil has been running out for some time and so diversification of the economy and the Omanisation of the labour force have been top priorities. The government refers to the 41 years of Sultan Qaboos’s rule as the “Renaissance”, and objectively it has been, given the deliberately old-fashoined ways that his father imposed on his subjects. But inevitably in 2011, with the new Arab Awakening, there have been questions raised in Oman too. There were some disturbances yjrtr earlier this year, but little was reported about them and the Sultan has endeavoured to defuse dissent by acceeding to a degree — though only a degree — of democratisation and assistance to unemployed youth. But loved as he genuinely is by much of Oman’s population, Sultan Qaboos is still a million miles from being a constitutional monarch. Moreover, no-one has any idea who will succeed him. His marriage was shortlived and did not bear fruit, and he has so far resisted the temptation to point the finger of succession at anyone.

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Gaddafi: The End of an Era

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 20th October, 2011

The capture and fatal shooting of Libya’s long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi brings to an end over four decades of the country’s Green Revolution. It is hard to remember now that when he first came to power there was widespread jubilation in Libya. But like many rulers who stay in office too long, he got more ruthless and despotic as the years went by, and he failed to ensure that the people benefitted from the country’s oil wealth. Gaddafi and his henchmen liked to pretend that Libya was run by people’s committees, and that he had no direct control himself. But everyone in Libya knew that was a lie and that even the hint of opposition could land one in jail, where torture was endemic and where hundreds, maybe thousands, of people were executed. I visited Libya many times over the past 20 years, travelling from west to east and north to south, much of it in a four-wheel drive. I was well aware how deeply the people of Benghazi in particular hated Gaddafi, but I also knew he had his supporters in Tripoli, Sirte and elsewhere. It is a remarkable tribute to the NTC forces (‘the rebels’, who must now be called the government) than they managed to topple the regime, albeit with assistance from NATO, Qatar and the UAE. Now comes the difficult task of reconstruction and reconciliation; one can only hope that the journey ahead is smoother than that being experienced next door in Egypt. For today, though, the mood amongst most, though not all, Libyans is one of celebration. The man who could have ordered their death on a whim has been dragged out of the pipe in which he was hiding and shot. Of course, those of us in the liberal West would have preferred to see him captured alive and brought to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, to be tried on charges of crimes against humanity. But many Libyans are just glad the nightmare is over and that Gaddafi perished inside the country he plundered for 42 years.

 

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Libya and the Responsibility to Protect

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 19th March, 2011

UN Security Council resolution 1973 regarding Libya is a milestone in the development not only of the concept of the Responsibility to Protect but also the realisation of its practical implications. Muammar Gaddafi had shown such flagrant disregard for the well-being of his people, in his brutal attempts to suppress the popular uprising against him, that the international community could not just sit back and watch a massacre take place. This of course goes counter to a longstanding principle in force really since the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648: the concept of the sovereignty of the nation state — in other words, that other countries should not interefere in the internal affairs of sovereign states. That is a principle that both Russia and China are keen to see maintained (because of their fears over restless regions such as Chechnya and Tibet) and explains why they both abstained on Resolution 1973. At least they did not veto it, thus giving a green light to international action, with UN backing. Britain, France and Lebanon took the lead on this, with the United States coming on board soon after. At least two other Arab states — the UAE and Qatar — have also indicated their willingness to be involved in the operation to protect the Libyan people. But inevitably the main thrust will come from NATO, with France and Britain again taking the lead. Like many who opposed the Iraq War, I feel that UN action on Libya was essential. But the challenge will be to bring a swift end to Gaddafi’s attacks on the rebels without things escalating or becoming too protracted. And then ideally Gaddafi must go — perferably pushed out by his own people.

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What Does Dubai Have to Celebrate?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 2nd December, 2009

The United Arab Emirates celebrates its National Day today, though Dubai’s financial woes continue to dominate the headlines. As one British Sunday newspaper put it graphically, the World — the over-the-top real estate development on reclaimed land off Dubai’s coast, shaped like a map of the world — is slowly sinking back into the sea, as all work on it has stopped. So does the UAE’s glitziest emirate really have anything to celebrate? I remember several years ago officials in Abu Dhabi — the UAE’s capital and most oil-rich emirate — frowning at tne excesses of their brash little brother along the coast, so one shouldn’t be surprised if there is a little schadenfreude in the air there. And some of the Western media — having lauded Dubai to the skies, thanks to free press trips and a bit of Posh and Becks’ stardust — are now metaphorically trashing the place. Of course, the reality is somewhere in the middle. Dubai did over-extend itself and some of its most materialist edifices are too vulgar for words, but it is nonetheless one of the most significant multicultural cities in the world and displays a degreee of tolerance to other cultures and other faiths which even some countries in Europe would do well to emulate.

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