Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Gulf Crisis week 2

2 weeks have passed since Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and began blocking air and sea routes and closed the only land border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

 The participating countries closed their air space to Qatar Airways and their national airlines are no longer flying into Qatar.  With the land border closed, all deliveries of food and other materials through Saudi Arabia have been halted so other arrangements were quickly made, including flying in produce from Turkey, Iran and India and sea shipping via Oman rather than UAE.

The effect on Gulf families is the biggest impact and today marks the 14 day deadline for Saudi, UAE and Bahraini nationals to leave Qatar and for Qataris to leave those countries.  There are harsh penalties for those who do not comply, including threats of jail sentences, travel bans of up to 3 years and possibly revoking citizenship permanently.  Amnesty International has accused these countries of "toying with the lives of thousands of Gulf residents as part of their dispute with Qatar, splitting up families and destroying peoples' livelihoods and education"

Students are being forced to quit their university education, some in their final year, with no compensation for the time and money spent.  Patients undergoing or awaiting urgent medical treatment in Qatar, known for its excellent health care facilities, are being ordered home.  Husbands and wives and whole families are being split up and sent in different directions, not knowing when they will see each other again.   One Saudi family was turned away at the Saudi border when they attempted to attend a family funeral in Qatar after their loved one had died in hospital here.  And one Qatari widow was forced to leave Saudi Arabia and return to Qatar without her special needs son who needed her care.

Individuals are being fired from their jobs, bank accounts frozen,  businesses closed and ruined after years and years of building them.  The Qatar Human Rights office is receiving hundreds of calls per day from people desperate for help.  Qatar has told residents from all nations that they are welcome to stay and many of them are choosing to do so, despite the punishment threatened from their own countries.

The rest of us are not feeling as much pain. Sure, prices are going up in the shops a little, we cant get bananas and other items are sometimes unavailable, dairy products are arriving from Turkey but not always available and flying out of Qatar to anywhere is taking longer due to the restrictions on flight paths.   And those carrying residents cards or permits to work in Qatar are being turned away from these neighbouring countries too, even though their nations' passports would normally entitle them to visas on arrival.

This being such a historic event, a friend and I decided to take a drive to the Saudi border to see what was happening there, if anything.  As we drove there on a steamy Friday afternoon, temperature in the upper 40s, traffic became lighter and lighter.  We came upon the border almost without warning and not much life was apparent.... apart from a police vehicle parked at the crossing.

We passed by slowly and then parked up in the petrol station beside immigration and went inside to talk to the attendants.  They looked pretty delighted to have customers and told us that they were remaining open as usual but the days were passing slowly with few customers and nothing to do.

 One or two other vehicles stopped to use the shop and we also watched a car seem to drive from Saudi Arabia into Qatar.  But it wasn't clear how or why this vehicle was allowed to pass and certainly all news reports are declaring the border completely closed on both sides, even to citizens trying to return home.

We thought we might have more luck at the border closer to the UAE, so we took a drive in that direction, passing a sweet little place called Al Ameria, marked with a small tower and a well, typical of those dotted around the desert region and used as essential watering holes for the Bedouin and their livestock.  The very same type of well that Wilfred Thesiger and his Bedouin companions would have depended on for survival when crossing the Empty Quarter desert around 100 years ago.

 Close by was a small farm with goats, and our only glimpse of a camel all day.  Kept in covered enclosures to protect them from the sun's harsh rays, they each had a hand cut 'hump hatch' for ease of movement in and out without catching their hump on the corrugated roof.  A nice custom touch.

We drove on towards the second border but before we could get even close to it, we came upon a military checkpoint and we were waved away..... the only thing crossing this checkpoint was a cat - Qatari I presume!

With the sun dropping towards the horizon and the light fading, we drove towards Dukhan on the west coast to find a restaurant for Iftar, the meal which breaks the fast during Ramadan.  As the sun set, we drove past a family who had stopped along the highway to prepare for Iftar and Maghrib prayer on the side of the road.

As the deadline passes for the 13,000 citizens affected by the punitive measures imposed by Qatar's neighbours, the UAE is now threatening that these sanctions could last for years with the intention of isolating Qatar from the region.  And Qatar is saying that it will not negotiate until the blockade is lifted.  So it seems this situation will continue for some time and we wait to see how and when it might be resolved.  For now,  the citizens and ex-pats alike are coming together in solidarity and support of the country and the Emir, and I guess the only people driving towards Saudi Arabia will be crazy border tourists like us!!

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

We are Qatar

Well, what a week!!  Ive been in Qatar now for 4 years and we've had some ups and downs and one or two troubled times, especially back in 2014 when diplomatic ties with our neighbours took a step back for a few months but on the whole, I've always had the view and the feeling that Qatar is pretty much one of the safest and most stable nations in the Middle East.

Then last Monday the ground shook beneath our feet and we suffered what can only be described as a geopolitical earthquake.  Sudden and severe, with instant impact, initially causing panic among the people, had us holding our breath for a few days waiting for the aftershocks and leaving long term consequences which we are still yet to truly grasp.

On Monday 5 June, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar, recalling their citizens and putting the country under an air, land and sea blockade.  Qatar imports 90% of its food, much of that overland through Saudi Arabia, with which it shares its only land border.  This border is now closed and deserted.

With every day that passed, we learned a little more and, working for Al Jazeera, we were more nervous than most, given that closure of Al Jazeera appeared to be one of the demands being made by the countries involved.

The timing seemed to be linked to Donal Trump's recent visit to Saudi Arabia, and now it is clear that this was indeed the catalyst.   Trump now openly admits that he spoke with some of the nations at the Arab summit about 'what to do about Qatar', despite the fact that he had been openly friendly with Sheikh Tamim and talked of selling him lots of "beautiful American weapons".

The key charge was that Qatar finances terrorism and within days, there appeared a list of individuals and organisations including Qatar Charity which KSA and others suggested were involved in terrorist activities.  This claim was refuted by the UN who said they had worked in partnership with Qatar Charity and it undertook great works in the region, assisting refugees, building schools and offering humanitarian aid in some of the worst affected trouble spots in the world, including Yemen, Gaza, Somalia, Syria and Iraq.

There are many theories out there as to what this is really about, and I don't intend to address them all here.  Suffice to say there seems to be a little bit of old fashioned jealousy at the way Qatar has built significant relationships and partnerships with nations around the world, has developed a well respected global media organisation and has grown its airline rapidly to become one of the most popular in the region and internationally, it is the richest nation in the world per capita and of course there is the World Cup!

Along with this, there is the order in the region with the scales so delicately balanced that a nod or a wink from the US President can have a huge impact.  Obama's stance on Iran and KSA kept the pot under a gentle simmer.  With Trump's visit to KSA,  he was smooched and sword danced into a stuper and love-bombed into whole heartedly standing behind anything the KSA wanted to do.  Not to mention, this action happened to fall neatly into the lap of Trumps' buddy 'Bibi' Netanyahu who must be rubbing his hands with glee at this chump Trump folly.

So now that the pot has royally boiled over, how does it feel to live here?

Well after the initial shock, the first day of some 'stupids' panic buying, and a few days of "wtf just happened?".... things are surprisingly calm.  The majority of residents are ex-pats from South Asia, Africa and Europe who are not personally linked to the countries affected.  We can continue to go about our business pretty much unaffected.  Shops are fully stocked - Qatar had planned for this possibility and acted extremely quickly to calm the population and get the shelves restocked and start importing dairy products from Turkey.  We've all had fun learning Turkish for milk (Sut) and laban (Ayran)!!

The citizens of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain are suffering the most, especially those who are intermarried which is very common in this region.  They were being forced to separate from their loved ones and return to countries where many of them had never lived, didnt have a job, a home or any remaining family members.  Qatar has told them they can stay but we wait to see what their home countries will do on 19th June when the deadline expires.

Some Emirates have even suggested that they are ready to burn their passports and will never go back now, especially after their country issued a law which would see anyone sympathising with Qatar locked up for a maximum term of 15 years in prison, even making it illegal to wear a Barcelona football shirt!!

But the outpouring of affection for the country and the Emir, Sheikh Tamim, is creating an atmosphere of positivity, strength and loyalty which is increasing by the day.  The dignified reaction by the Qatar authorities and the Royal family in the wake of this action has added to this feeling and people are bonding and talking to each other about what is happening.  They are continuing to enjoy the holy month of Ramadan, going out with their children and showing a graceful defiance which is pretty infectious!!

Watch this space as I continue to blog on the ongoing situation and how it feels on the ground.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Think global - buy local

Now one wouldn't necessarily think of the Middle East region as a salad garden, given the lack of rainfall throughout the year, so the plans for Qatar to achieve self-sufficiency in vegetable production over the next 5 years may seem ambitious.
But this is indeed the aim, as stated by the Minister of Municipality and Environment, Mohammed bin Abdullah Al Rumaihi at an event for Qatari farmers held back in January this year.
This came to my attention after I started to notice more local produce in the Carrefour supermarket where I do my weekly shop.  I've been impressed by the supermarket's policy of labelling the country of origin of all fresh produce, which gives consumers the choice to support local farmers in Qatar and other producers from the region.

The issue of 'food miles' has been on the minds of western consumers for some years now,  as we learn more about the impact of food transportation on the environment.  

Being from the UK, there is an emphasis now on buying locally and eating products which are 'in season', bringing with it the benefits of being fresher, tastier, free from preservatives and usually cheaper.  But also, of course, means that it hasn't travelled for miles across the world to your plate, which thereby also lessens the carbon footprint.

So seeing more local produce from the Middle East region and particularly from Qatar itself, is very exciting.  Qatari grown products include mushrooms, cucumbers, spinach, tomatoes, peppers, beans, aubergines and courgettes.  

Some farms are using all year round hydroponic techniques, without soil, in greenhouses under the never ending sunshine of the region.  The preciously scarce water is recycled, going around the system some 20 times.   Others use more traditional farming during the more temperate months of September to June, using a sophisticated drainage system to use water more efficiently.

With Qatar having the unfortunate position of being listed consistently in the top 10 most obese countries in the world,  and a recent Qatar Biobank report for 2016 showing that 70% of the national population are obese or overweight, an emphasis on encouraging people to eat more healthy organic produce should be a priority.

For my part, I make an effort to buy produce from Qatar or as close to Qatar as possible.  This week, my basket consisted of milk, cheese, yoghurt, and spring onions  from Saudi Arabia...

fish, tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes and peppers from Qatar,

aubergines from Oman,

pasta from United Arab Emirates...

free range eggs from Lebanon...

lettuce and chillis from Jordan, 

grapefruits from Turkey .... and most exciting of all.... mangos from Yemen!

Of course, one can also find a variety of fruits and vegetables from every country in the world, particularly Europe.  For Qatar's farmers to be successful, they will need to find a way to promote Qatari produce and incentivise the retailers to sell it and the shoppers to buy it.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

War in Yemen is 2 years old - Who would know?

 26th March marks the beginning of the 3rd year of the war in Yemen - the day on which Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Gulf and African nations, intervened in a civil war in the country between the Iranian backed Houthi rebels (a tribal faction from the North of the country) and the rest (an amalgamation of government troops under President Hadi and young men allied to the Southern Movement).

This war with seemingly no end in sight, has disappeared from view to the outside world.  Out-miseried by the atrocities in Syria and Iraq and of course outranked by events in Europe of late, most recently the attack on Westminster Bridge in London.

But what many don't seem to understand or want to discuss is that these events are all interrelated.  Considering Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, it might be a surprise to know that the UK and US are making a nice tidy sum out of it.

A recent Amnesty International report states "the USA and UK combined have made arms transfers worth more than US$5 billion to Saudi Arabia since 2015" when the war started.  And these weapons have been used to commit human rights abuses in Yemen. The Saudi coalition has killed 494 innocent civilians in seemingly indiscriminate air strikes on civilian homes in Houthi held territory, using these weapons.

Back in London, the wall to wall media coverage of the Westminster attack continues, with regular reference to our British values and way of life and our tolerance and resilience in the face of adversity.   The media used words such as "sick', "depraved", "Westminster carnage" and "attack on the home of democracy in London".

This attack by one individual is branded as a depraved act of terror, while state sponsored co-ordinated attacks on innocent civilians in other countries is what.......   business?  British export? or part of the so called 'war on terror' ?...  or conveniently both?
Photo by Iona Craig
A recent US Navy Seal raid on a tiny village in South Yemen at the end of January made a few headlines but only because one US Navy Seal died.  What was not so widely reported is that 25 innocent people died.  6 of them women and 9 of them children under the age of 13 years.  One of them 8 year old Noor Al Awlaqi (pictured).

There is a bigger picture that it seems so callous to discuss in the immediate aftermath of a horrific attack on home soil.  But if we don't discuss this now, then when?  Lets face it, 24 hour news channels have plenty of time to fill, especially when the facts in these events are so few and far between.  So why not use the time to ask some of these questions?  Or do people prefer the narrative of "why do they hate us so much?"

There is an argument that humans love conflict and division.  It helps us feel a sense of belonging and bonding against a common enemy.  And people love fear.  In fact, people just love to feel something - good or bad, they don't care.  Western society is so doped up on X-Factor and celebrity dancing shows, life passes numbly by while we dumbly go along with whatever gruel we are fed by the media.  We are emotional beings, we are all desperate to feel something but we don't get the chance much because we no longer need to hunt or fight for survival.

We gorge on 24 hour news, but learn very little about what is really going on.  So why don't we know what is really going on?  Because it doesn't serve governments well for us to know.  It doesn't serve the "home of democracy" to have true transparency.  So whats the point in democracy?  If we don't ask questions and don't challenge at these times more than at any other, then when?

Is it because it seems anti-British to ask these questions at such a time?  Does it appear insensitive?  But surely if your loved one was killed, wouldn't you want to know why?

When Navy Seal, William Owens, was killed in the botched raid in Yemen, The White House described the raid as "absolutely a success, and I think anyone who would suggest its not a success does a disservice to the life of Chief Owens" and used this as a reason not to investigate because it seemed insensitive to do so.  They didn't bank on Owen's father demanding a review of what went wrong and accusing Trump of hiding behind his sons death to prevent an investigation.

So we need to be careful that we don't allow the loss of British lives to be used by our Government to neatly paper over their own abuses.  Let us not numbly, dumbly and dutifully fall in behind our leaders just because they tell us we share the same values and they are under attack by 'evil doers.'

Let us instead use our rights as a tolerant democratic society to call our hypocritical government to account and hold it to those values so espoused.  And if we want to continue to claim those values and standards of tolerance, respect, rule of law and democracy, surely we carry them wherever we go and we don't somehow leave them at the border of southern Europe.