The Happy Arab News Service

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Dismembering the Shi'ite Crescent

Last updated: February 23, 2008

The Shi'ite Cresecent

Source: Wikipedia

February 22, 2008

A few weeks ago an opposition leader in Bahrain called for a top minister to be sacked in a row over Bahrain's latest demographic statistics. Sheikh Ali Salman, chairman of the Al Wefaq parliamentary bloc that draws its support from the kingdom's Shi'ite majority, said that Cabinet Affairs Minister Sheikh Ahmed bin Ateyetala "had either failed to keep track of rapid population growth, or had hidden it because the figures had been swelled by massive naturalization of foreigners".

The scandal started when in a written response to a parliamentary question by Sheikh Salman, Sheikh Ahmed, also responsible for the Central Informatics Organisation (CIO), put Bahrain's combined population at 1,046,814. Sheikh Salman said he was stunned.

Fury at 'hidden' population surge

"The Cabinet Affairs Minister has stunned us all, as we thought that the population was just 750,000," Shaikh Salman said at yesterday's session.

"This is what the government used to base its studies on, along with all international investment centres until the end of last year and even American intelligence when American President George Bush visited the country (last month)," he said.

"The figure 750,000 would have been reasonable, since the last figure issued by the CIO was 724,000, in 2005."

According to Sheikh Ahmad, out of this million and something 529,446 were Bahraini citizens. Sheikh Salman found this number no less astonishing.

Shaikh Salman said the normal annual population growth rate was 2.7 per cent for Bahrainis. Given the 1981 census, which recorded the Bahraini population as 238,420, today's figure should be 447,531.

"But we are shocked to see it at 529,446," he said.

"This shows that the increase, which happened suddenly in the last years, is the result of criminal political naturalisation.

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. . .

Source: Gulf Daily News

The "criminal political naturalization" refers to the past practice of the country's ruling Sunni dynasty of granting citizenship to foreign Sunni Arabs in a bid to boost the numbers of the local Sunni minority. Sheikh Salman says too many Bahrainis have been spotted recently, a sure sign the government is back to its old tricks.

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On the other side of the Arabian peninsula, in a protest letter sent to the governor of Najran province in south-west Saudi Arabia, the local Ismaili Shi'ites claimed that the government has reneged on a promise it gave them two years ago to scrap plans to resettle the area with thousands of Sunni Arabs from Yemen.

RIYADH, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Saudi Shi'ites have asked the authorities to scrap plans to settle Sunni Muslim Yemenis in southern Saudi Arabia to change the demographic balance in an area where they are the majority.

. . .

Ismaili Shi'ites, who form the bulk of the 420,000 strong population of the province, have a history of violent protests against the authorities. The last protests of this kind were raging in the province in 2000. The government's response came in the form of a plan to settle up to 10,000 Yemeni tribesmen in and around the regional capital. Since then King Abdullah had halted the settlement plan in exchange for the promise of good behavior from Najrani Shi'ites, yet it appears now that the plan has either been revived or never halted in the first place.

On a recent trip to the region, large billboards signed in the name of Yemeni tribal leaders had been erected to thank the local governor and senior Saudi royals for funding some of the housing projects -- prim towns with grid street designs, one storey villas, street lighting and electricity.

"It's a form of racial discrimination. We don't have services," said Said, 30, pointing to a map on the wall of a deserted office outlining plans for new housing units.

"There are families here who cannot get a new house or a legal deed to the land they live on. Even the children of the newcomers are given pieces of land."

. . .

The government's Human Rights Commission has said previously it is looking into the Najran issue.

"We really do not know much about what's going on," said Turki al-Sudairy, head of the official body on Monday. "I'm not sure what information to believe. We don't have a man there."

An Interior Ministry official declined to comment.

Source: Reuters

There is more to it than resettlement projects. Saudi Arabia is currently constructing a massive security barrier along its other border, one with Iraq. Apart from fencing off Iraqi Sunni Jihadists, the barrier is also meant to cut overland access for another Saudi Shi'ite minority to the Shi'ites in Iraq and Iran, effectively cutting off the southern wing of the Shi'ite Crescent from its main axis. In the era of globalisation and satellite TV physical separation may be of limited effect. Yet, it's also clear that the part of the Crescent running through the relatively sparsely populated areas along the western coast of the Gulf should be very vulnerable to resettlement projects of any kind.

Where a few dozens of thousands of Sunni colonists would suffice to permanently change the sectarian balance, governments should be very tempted to resort to engineering such demographic solutions. In those parts of the Gulf where the Shi'ite question is particularly acute, such as Bahrain and some provinces of Saudi Arabia, it may be already happening. The human input required for implementation of such solutions is minimal when compared to the hundreds of thousands of potential candidates from all over the Arab world ready to relocate themselves to the Gulf at the first call. And whatever misgivings the locals may have about naturalizing more foreigners, they are plainly more fearful of their Shi'ite neighbors.

In short, as concerns about Iran and the rising Shi'ite Crescent keep mounting in the Gulf, the local Shi'ite minorities should expect to see more resettlement projects of this kind aimed at diluting the Shi'ite presence along the western coast of the Persian Gulf as well as cutting them off from the main body of the Crescent and from other Shi'ite mini-crescents such as one in the southern Arabian peninsula. Some Arab governments in the Gulf just don't think that "demography is destiny" in any way . . . and they mean it.

February 23, 2008

Seen Sliding Towards Breakdown

While Saudi Arabia is busy with its security fences and resettlement projects its southern neighbor seems to be doing so badly that some are starting worrying in serious about its imminent collapse. The latest analysis published by Reuters puts it blatantly: Yemen seen sliding towards breakdown.

SANAA, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Yemen's painful struggle to build a modern state may be overwhelmed by rampant population growth, dwindling resources, corruption and internal conflicts.

"I don't believe there is another nation in the world...that is this close to a population-cum-resources catastrophe," said Ramon Scoble, a water expert from New Zealand working in Yemen.

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Like many other Arab economies Yemen is hard hit by the rising oil and food prices and the budget is stressed to the breaking point by the government's policy of subsidizing prices of basic commodities and fuel. The fuel subsidy is reaching $1 billion a year which is about 1/3 of the oil revenue that keeps falling each year as the country's oilfields are nearly depleted. The government though is hesitant about moving to abolish subsidies and liberalize prices fearing widespread social unrest. With a full blown Shi'ite insurgency in the northwest and the separatist sentiment live and kicking in the south these fears are more than well founded.

And on top of this Yemen's demographic explosion shows few signs of relenting. While population growth is decelerating across the region, Yemen seems to be caught in some sort of a high fertility trap and to its own peril.

The population has doubled to 22 million since Saleh (the current president) took power in the former north Yemen in 1978. It could gallop to 40 million in the next 20 years unless aggressively reined in.

"The catastrophe is looming faster than anyone can imagine," said Scoble, consultant to Germany's GTZ development agency. He said Yemen had enough rainfall for only about 2 million people.

According to the government, 19 of Yemen's 21 aquifers are in negative balance, with more water extracted than replenished. Most goes to irrigate qat, a mild narcotic widely used in Yemen.

Some Yemeni officials though insist on remaining optimistic:

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The government tends to minimise the impact of southern unrest, terrorism and tribal insecurity, citing the potential of tourism and foreign investment to turn Yemen's fortunes around.

Such views are echoed by Faris Sanabani, editor of the Yemen Today monthly, who argued that regional prosperity was at stake.

"Yemen shouldn't be a failing state and it won't be," he said. "If Yemen goes down, Saudi Arabia will go down with it."

Source: Reuters

Needless to say, some people may find this argument lacking somewhat. Let alone that Saudi Arabia is building another fence along its southern border too. Yemen may yet have to come to terms with the idea of going down alone.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Literate Fundamentalists

Last updated: February 25, 2008

December 11, 2007

A new book on the history of Christian fundamentalism in Europe is basically making the same point as one of my posts on Islam.

Heather Whipps
Special to LiveScience
Dec 11, 2007

The translation of the Bible into English marked the birth of religious fundamentalism in medieval times, as well as the persecution that often comes with radical adherence in any era, according to a new book.

The 16th-century English Reformation, the historic period during which the Scriptures first became widely available in a common tongue, is often hailed by scholars as a moment of liberation for the general public, as it no longer needed to rely solely on the clergy to interpret the verses.

But being able to read the sometimes frightening set of moral codes spelled out in the Bible scared many literate Englishmen into following it to the letter, said James Simpson, a professor of English at Harvard University.

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Persecution and paranoia became the norm, Simpson said, as the new Protestants feared damnation if they didn't interpret the book properly. Prologues in Tyndale's Bible warned readers what lay ahead if they did not follow the verses strictly.

"If you fail to read it properly, then you begin your just damnation. If you are unresponsive … God will scourge you, and everything will fail you until you are at utter defiance with your flesh," the passage reads.

Without the clergy guiding them, and with religion still a very important factor in the average person's life, their fate rested in their own hands, Simpson said.

The rise of fundamentalist interpretations during the English Reformation can be used to understand the global political situation today and the growth of Islamic extremism, Simpson said as an example.

"Very definitely, we see the same phenomenon: newly literate people claiming that the sacred text speaks for itself, and legitimates violence and repression," Simpson said, "and the same is also true of Christian fundamentalists."


In one of my previous posts I said:

The conventional wisdom (wisdom?) suggests that globalization and spread of literacy should be weakening religions such as Islam. So many are at loss to explain the current surge of Muslim fundamentalism. In particular, in a country that has already experienced a significant development like Malaysia.

In reality there are compelling reasons to see the process working just the other way round. Muslim masses are generally ignorant of their religion. The spread of literacy and improved education actually had the opposite effect of exposing for the first time large sections of the population to the contents of their religion. Without going into the silly debate of what the real Islam is about, it is reasonable to suggest that what real Muslims often find in the texts is not what Western liberals will see as a very tolerant and flexible approach.


Add to this the demographic explosion that has rocked the Muslim world a few decades ago leaving in its wake a huge, unemployed and increasingly restless youth bulge and we are done with the explanations for the deep shit our region is in.

February 19, 2008

Youth Bulge and Islamic Revival in Egypt

The New York Times
February 17, 2008

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While there are few statistics tracking religious observance among the young, there is near-universal agreement that young people are propelling an Islamic revival, one that has been years in the making but is intensifying as the youth bulge in the population is peaking.

In Egypt, where the people have always been religious and conservative, young people are now far more observant and strict in their interpretation of their faith. A generation ago, for example, few young women covered their heads, and few Egyptian men made it a practice to go to the mosque for the five daily prayers. Now the hijab, a scarf that covers the hair and neck, is nearly universal, and mosques are filled throughout the day with young men, and often their fathers.

In 1986, there was one mosque for every 6,031 Egyptians, according to government statistics. By 2005, there was one mosque for every 745 people (!!! NB) — and the population has nearly doubled.

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February 25, 2008

The Civilized Alternative

The Moroccan government has broken a terrorist network rounding up 32 individuals. The ring has been allegedly plotting attacks against various targets across the country as well as assassinating politicians, army officers and members of the Jewish community. One of the arrested happened to be the secretary general of al-Badil al-Hadari, one of Marocco's Islamist parties. The government followed the arrests with a decree that outlawed al-Badil because of the involvement of its high ranking members in the network.

What's intriguing, according to the Economist, is a possible Hezbollah connection - the arrests included a local reporter for al-Manar. Anyway, of particular relevance to the subject of this post is the social and educational background of those involved:

Middle-class terrorists?

Unemployment is often seen as a cause of militant violence in Morocco, but in this case all but one of the men arrested were in employment, including several academics, a police superintendent and the manager of a hotel in Marrakech. (A recent round-up of suspected al-Qaida militants in Algeria produced a similar profile of well-educated individuals) A full list of their names and occupations has been published, although none has yet been convicted of any crime. The ministry of the interior says that the group laundered money obtained from robberies in Europe through a series of investments in real estate, tourism and commercial projects in several Moroccan cities.


Incidentally, al-Badil al-Hadari means "the civilized alternative" in Arabic. Given the academic and other achievements of the members of the alleged network, there could hardly be a better choice of name.


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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Gaza Celebrates Dimona

February 5, 2008

Faithful to a long established tradition Palestinians in Gaza were celebrating the latest suicide attack with flowers and pastries. The double suicide attack on a shopping center in Dimona was no great success by any standard as the second kamikadze had been shot dead before he was able to detonate his explosives. An elderly woman was killed and her husband critically injured, another dozen of people were wounded but otherwise it was a minor attack in terms of casualties. All photos by Reuters.

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