Saturday, February 26, 2011

Asma al-Assad, or the psycho terror of children

David Kenner's excellent blog highlights the ridiculous puff piece on Syria's ruling family in Vogue: Asma al-Assad, A Rose in the Desert.

"It's hard to imagine that a Vogue editor woke up this morning and decided it wouldn't be hugely embarrassing to publish a puff piece today, at the moment of the greatest upheaval in the Middle East in two generations, about Syria's ruling family. But that appears to be exactly what happened."

The most revealing part of the article, though, is the description of the psychological terror Asma uses on a visit to a school run by her charity, Massar. She tells the children:

"I’ve been advised that we have to close down this center so as to open another one somewhere else,' she says. Kids’ mouths drop open. Some repress tears. Others are furious. One boy chooses altruism: 'That’s OK. We know how to do it now; we’ll help them.'
Then the first lady announces, 'That wasn’t true. I just wanted to see how much you care about Massar."

I suppose this behaviour is rationalised somewhere in Asma's subconscious. She is simply preparing Syria's less fortunate children for the type of tests they will get at the hands of the Syrian state as grown-ups.

Why did Vogue's Joan Juliet Buck write this article? France's satirical Charlie Hebdo has an interesting investigative report  about how Ben Ali bought off the French Press: "La Presse Française achetée par Ben Ali." But I am not suggesting that Ms. Buck is sleazy. I just think that she lacks common sense.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


For those of you who have been too busy to read up on the details of how Al-Qaeda is putting drugs in Nescafe, here is the best synopsis yet of Qaddafi's speech.

Alternatively, thanks to Vanity Fair, you can make up your own

Monday, February 21, 2011

Libya is a very different place

Watching Seif al-Islam's surreal "demonstrators are on Ecstasy and want to create an Islamic Emirate" speech yesterday, I recalled my own experience with Libyan officials some years ago. Libya has no one who is even remotely qualified in government ... And qualified Libyans have no government experience. To understand the depth of the problem, here's my first hand experience with some Libyan officials:

I will not name the officials, or their exact functions. Let's call them X and Y. Both were very senior cabinet level officials who were attending an international meeting. Their attendance was confirmed at the last minute. They were unwilling or unable to speak any foreign language, and the "official translator" they brought with them was a very attractive Palestinian woman who simply went shopping.  It was not possible to procure another translator/escort for them in time, and so I had to stick with them for 2 days.

1.  The Medical Exam:
X was not interested in going to his first scheduled meeting. Instead, he called and asked if I can help him find an eye doctor. He needed new reading glasses. I spent half an hour "translating" a Snellen chart. Finally, the doctor asked "can you see with these lenses better than without them?" X replied:"In Allah's name, I don't know. You're the doctor. You tell me."

2. Momma's bra:
Y never said a thing in any meeting. He listened, but neither he nor his assistant took any notes. He warmly shook hands with everyone at the end of the meeting, though. Finally, Y came to me and spoke in a hushed voice: "I need to go to a pharmacy". He paced up and down the aisles, and finally found his target: He picked up all the available containers of Johnson's Baby Talcum Powder. My mind started racing: Is this guy trying to conceal large quantities of cocaine? Could it be even more sinister: Anthrax? He noticed the worried look on my face and explained: "my mother gets a terrible rash in the summer. She likes to use this under her bra", he smiled contentedly.

3. The Great Madman's River:
As I headed to see them off at the airport, we chatted about infrastructure development in Libya. I asked about the great leader's manmade river. "The water is no good, you can't drink it" Y thundered, "it's blue."  Blue?  He explained: "I've seen the water reservoirs, they look blue, like sea water."

Libya has a serious problem, and it is not just Kaddhafi. The problem is that everyone in government has to be replaced. The country needs rebuild everything, from scratch.  There is no capable bureaucracy that can hold the place together in the interim. Unfortunately, Seif maybe right about one thing: chaos is on the horizon.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Is Syria next?

Before you dismiss this question as a sweet dream, consider the following:

1.  The catalyst that drove people to the streets of Tunisia and Egypt now, as opposed to say six months ago, is rising food prices. This is a global phenomenon that is impacting all countries, including Syria.

2. Assad is clearly sweating. Take a look at the interview he had with the Wall Street Journal yesterday. The timing of the interview is itself enough evidence of the pressure he is facing.  

3. The last two days have seen a remarkable "buzz" around activists that seem to be organising for demonstrations in Syria.  One Facebook group got a remarkable 10,000 members in 3 days. You can read more about it on CNN, the FT, WSJ.

Sure Syria is a controlled economy, so international price increases are not automatically translated into domestic prices. But this means Syria's subsidy bill needs to increase sharply. The Economist had a good article in its January 20 issue highlighting the tough choices the government is facing, as well as its shrinking pool of subsidies.

The Benihana Outrage

Many of you are already aware of Benihana's outrageous attempt to sue Mark, a blogger in Kuwait, for writing a bad review. Jad Aoun's blog highlights the issues, and Mustapha's BeirutSpring elegantly sums up the feeling of most Middle Eastern bloggers with: "We are all Mark now."

This is an issue that can have repercussions for the freedom of expression of bloggers in the region. The Middle East is not a place known for a free and independent press, and blogging is one of the few outlets for independent opinion.

Regardless of the merits of the case, Benihana has been callous in handling it. Even if they have a case (which I doubt) the manner with which their manager (Mike Servo) attempts to stereotype the Lebanese in his comments to Mark is bizarre. As a US corporation, I am sure that Benihana's corporate offices will not look favourably to their local manager's actions.

They should withdraw their case immediately, but whatever the outcome, their local manager must be fired now.

Those of you reading this please take a moment to write to Benihana of Tokyo Group via their website.  If you are too busy, simply send them a link to this blog posting. You can also join the Boycott Benihana Kuwait Facebook group.