Friday 29 April 2011

22 April 2011

MUSCAT-DOHA: As I hope you’ll have noticed, if you’ve been listening to the programme over the past couple of evenings, I’ve been in the Gulf this week to report on how the recent upheavals in the region have affected two very different Gulf states: Oman and Qatar.

Oman is one of the poorest countries in the region – it has only modest reserves of oil, which are fast running out. Unemployment is high and opportunities are few.

It’s a very different picture in Qatar, which is now classified as the richest country in the world, if you calculate these things as total economic output per head of population. (Huge amounts of oil and gas; very few people. The sums aren’t hard to do.)

But what the two countries have in common is that they are both ruled by hereditary rulers who came to power by gentling pushing aside their fathers. Sultan Qaboos of Oman took over 40 years ago and set about modernising his nation; the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has been in office only since 1995 but has already made a substantial impact.

Most of the countries of the Gulf have remained relatively peaceful during the recent turmoil in the Arab world. The big exception is Bahrain, which has no oil reserves, and where there are deep sectarian divisions between the people, most of whom are Shia, and the ruling royal family, who are Sunni.

In Oman, there were protests in February and March – at least two people were killed, and for a time it looked as if the country, usually a by-word for stability, might be heading for trouble.

But the sultan took rapid action – he sacked 12 of his cabinet ministers, announced an immediate increase in the minimum wage, and set up a committee to look at constitutional reform. And Omanis say they have already noticed that the local media are taking a more robust look at the record of some government ministers.

Is it enough to keep the protesters quiet? It’s enough for some of them, but there’s still a permanent encampment of job-seekers outside the majlis al-shura, the consultative assembly, and pro-democracy activists are reserving judgement until they see more detail about exactly what constitutional reforms the sultan has in mind.

In Qatar, there have been no protests. Why would there be, in the land of plenty? (In fact, most of the people living in Qatar are foreign workers, and they don’t necessarily share much of the wealth. But nor are they in a position to complain, so you hear nothing from them.)

This may be the home of Al-Jazeera, the TV network that did so much to spread news of the early uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt – but there’s no home-grown pro-democracy movement.

After all, as one young Qatari student openly admitted: “If you already have everything you want, why would you want democracy?”

Despite the glitz of its shiny high-rise hotels and office blocks, Qatar is still a pretty conservative place. Its people mainly belong to the ultra-strict Wahhabi sect of Islam – although unlike in Saudi Arabia, in Qatar, women are allowed to drive.

But alcohol is banned more or less everywhere, and most women still cover themselves entirely in black abbayas when they appear outside their home.

So if there is pressure on Qatar’s rulers, it’s not for more change, more quickly, as it is elsewhere in the Arab world. It’s the exact opposite – and the emir knows that there could be trouble ahead if he tries to move too quickly.

Just a reminder that The World Tonight can now be downloaded free of charge as a podcast, which means that if you’ve missed any of my reports from here, you can catch up while you’re sitting in the garden over the long weekend. Just go to

29 April 2011

Six weeks ago, I wrote a piece on The World Tonight blog called “What’s so special about Libya?”

Then, the question arose because of the killing of civilians in Yemen and Bahrain. I asked why there was a UN resolution authorising the use of military force to protect citizens in Libya, but not elsewhere.

Now, fast forward to this week. The question arises again because of events in Syria. Tanks have rolled in to several towns and cities to prevent more anti-government protests, and human rights groups estimate that more than 400 Syrian civilians have died since the wave of Arab unrest reached Syrian shores.

On Wednesday’s programme, I discussed the difference between the UN’s response to the Libya and Syria crises with Professor Ed Luck, who’s a special adviser to the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.

His explanation, in a nutshell, was that in the case of Libya, important regional groupings like the Arab League and the African Union had asked for robust UN action. In the case of Syria, there has been no such demand.

Here are some possible reasons why. First, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is respected by other Arab leaders in a way that the eccentric and mercurial Muammar Gaddafi of Libya is not. Second, Syria has a relatively well-trained and well-equipped army, which Libya does not. That makes a big difference when weighing up the pros and cons of international military action.

Third, there is a widespread belief among Western governments that President Assad could still be persuaded to turn back from his current policy of trying to suppress opposition protests by force.

And fourth, Syria’s geographic position – neighbouring Iraq, Lebanon and Israel, makes it highly sensitive strategically. Instability in Syria could easily spill across its borders.

The United Nations doctrine known as “responsibility to protect” – or R2P in the jargon – was drawn up for use in cases when governments are either unable to protect their own civilians or are themselves a threat to them. Just like Syria, then?

Not necessarily. Before the doctrine can be invoked, it’s considered essential that six criteria need to be fulfilled. The cause needs to be just (no problem there, you might think); the intention must be right (in other words, to protect civilians, not to advance national self-interest); military action should be used only as a final resort; there must be legitimate authority (ie a Security Council resolution); the means used must be proportionate to the threat; and there must be a “reasonable prospect” that the action taken is successful.

It’s that final criterion – a reasonable prospect of success – which could well be the biggest stumbling block in Syria, even if all the other five criteria were met. (And that’s a moot point, in fact, given that Russia, a close ally of Syria going back many decades, is unlikely merely to abstain on a proposed Security Council resolution, as it did on Libya.)

After all, given the Libya experience so far, who would like to bet on a Syria intervention being any more successful? So with no regional pressure for military intervention, and with no Western appetite for any more military adventures, the message for anti-government protesters in Syria seems inescapable: you’re on your own.

Friday 15 April 2011

15 April 2011

If you want to know what’s really worrying Washington as officials anxiously survey the anger sweeping through the Arab world, it’s not Libya you should be focusing on.

Try Syria.

And if you need a reason, as so often in the Middle East, all you have to do is look at a map.

To the west, Lebanon, a country that Syria has always regarded as part of its own back yard and where its support for the Shia Hizbollah movement is a vital component in Lebanon’s political jigsaw.

To the south, Israel, a country with which Syria is still officially at war, and which has annexed a sizeable chunk of Syrian territory, the strategically sensitive Golan Heights. (Syria is also a key supporter of the Palestinian Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip and which Israel regards as among its most implacable enemies.)

To the east, Iraq, still far from stable after the 2003 US-led invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein, and where Syria’s long-term ally, Iran, is a major political player.

In other words, Syria is a major influence in the most sensitive region of the always sensitive Middle East. And President Bashar al-Assad, who with his late father Hafez al-Assad before him, has ruled the country for more than 40 years, is no friend of Washington.

Last night, the US State Department said there is evidence that Iran is helping Syrian authorities crack down on the wave of protests that have swept through the country for the past month. It is, said officials, a troubling example of Iranian meddling in the region.

Nonsense, said Syria, and totally untrue. What’s more, some analysts have suggested that there are signs of Western-backed groups supplying arms to anti-Assad protesters. Some reports claim that it’s these armed protesters who were responsible for shooting and killing Syrian security forces last weekend.

With very little independent reporting from inside Syria (no visas are being issued to foreign journalists), rumours are everywhere and facts are thin on the ground. Today, tens of thousands of protesters were out again on the streets of several towns and cities – human rights groups say more than 200 have been killed over the past four weeks, nearly 40 of them last Friday alone. (I write this before the full scale of today’s protests is known.)

When President Assad delivered a long-awaited speech on television two weeks ago, he was seen by critics, both in Syria and outside, to have missed an opportunity to announce meaningful reforms that might have gone some way to satisfying at least some of the protesters.

His government is considered to be one of the most repressive and brutal in the Arab world – no one in Syria is unaware that back in 1982, when his father was in charge, tens of thousands of people were killed in the city of Hama when an Islamist-inspired uprising was mercilessly crushed.

It’s impossible to predict how the crisis in Syria will end – it certainly looks like the most serious challenge to the rule of the Assads since 1982. And now, with allegations from both sides of external meddling, there is a growing risk that Syria could become a proxy battleground for regional super-powers hoping to maximise their influence.

If Bashar al-Assad manages to survive, it’ll be seen as good news for Iran. If he is toppled (depending, of course, on what – or who – follows him), it could be good news for anti-Assad forces backed by the West and Saudi Arabia, which itself has been accused of meddling in Syria, as well as intervening on the side of repression in its neighbour, Bahrain.

But it’s as well to remember that even if there are regional forces involved, there is also genuine popular anger at a government which is seen to have failed to deliver on its promises of more freedom and less corruption.

Friday 8 April 2011

8 April 2011

Apologies for the late delivery of this week’s newsletter – I’m just back from a quick flit to Rio, where I was invited to attend a conference on the subject of “Brazil and the World: opportunities, ambitions, and choices.”

You may think this was an odd thing to do while Libya, Yemen and Syria continue to dominate the foreign news agenda – but the fact is that significant change is not limited to the Arab world, and we need to keep an eye on what is going on elsewhere as well.

So, how’s Brazil doing? Brazil is doing fine, thank you – but there was a discernible under-current at the conference suggesting that some Brazilian policy-makers and analysts do wonder how much longer they can keep this up.

True, economic growth looks good, and Brazil escaped relatively unscathed from the financial turmoil of the past two years. The charismatic and larger-than-life President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has made way after eight years in office for the much less charismatic Dilma Rousseff, who is a close ally and protegée, but without, it seems, his global ambitions.

It has consolidated its position as an influential member of the four-nation group of emerging economic giants known as BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), but here you begin to sense a kernel of unease.

Of course it’s nice to be taken seriously as an economic super-power of the future – but are there certain expectations of how a major player of the 21st century is meant to behave at a global level?

All four BRIC nations abstained in the UN Security Council vote on the use of military force to protect civilians in Libya. No one was surprised that Russia and China didn’t vote Yes – they have long opposed any suggestion that the UN should authorise the use of force in member states against the wishes of their governments.

But why did Brazil abstain? At lunch yesterday, a retired Brazilian ambassador told me: “You know, we quite like being invisible on the world stage. It suits us very well.” And there, for now, you have your answer. Brazil likes having its cake and eating it – it has seen how China, for example, has begun to use its economic muscle as a diplomatic tool on the world stage, and it has seen how much flak China has run into as result.

But none of this means that Brazil is not engaging on the world scene. It commands the UN peace-keeping force in Haiti; it contributes to many others, and is about to expand its naval role in the UN peace-keeping force in southern Lebanon.

So I asked the combative defence minister Nelson Jobim: “Why does Brazil not support UN action in Libya, but commands it in Haiti?” Simple, he said. We believe in peace-keeping, but not peace-making – and we remain to be convinced that the use of military force, even in Libya, can help resolve conflicts.

I’m not sure that Brazil’s long-term ambition is to remain invisible. It is, for example, a significant aid and development donor in many African countries, specialising in know-how and what it calls capacity development. In other words, because Brazil has emerged from developing nation to mature economy, it has lessons it’s happy to pass on to others.

There’s much talk of an almost mystical “Brazilian way” on the world stage. We are, say Brazilians, a mult-ethnic, multi-cultural society, with a passionate belief in moderation, and we know how to inter-act with each other and with others of different ethnicities and different cultures.

(No one said so in terms, but it was pretty clear what the sub-text was. China is another economic super-power now extremely active in Africa, but it is often criticised for its alleged lack of sensitivity to different cultural traditions.)

Ambitions? Yes, Brazil has ambitions – it wants to continue to invest in infrastructure and poverty alleviation, and it wants to cement its good neighbour relations with the rest of Latin America. And of course, it wants to protect and make good use of its abundant natural resources, both on land and at sea, including the vast under-water oil reserves that are yet to come on stream.

Choices? Yes, it knows it’ll have to make some, but maybe not just yet. As one, non-Brazilian speaker at the conference asked: “Is abstaining in a key security council vote the best way to press your case to be considered as a permanent member of the council?”

And opportunities? Maybe it's already missed a few; after all, it’s India and China that are now the undoubted emerging power stars, thanks in part to education systems that can deliver substantially better results than Brazil’s. And as new opportunities come along, more choices will have to be made. Invisibility may not be a long-term option.

But here’s one statistic that tells you a lot about how the world is changing. Brazil now has more embassies in Africa than Britain does. And you don’t open embassies unless you see opportunities.

Friday 1 April 2011

1 April 2011

The anti-Gaddafi fighters racing backwards and forwards along Libya’s coastal highway are not going to win their war. That’s not exactly a prediction; let’s call it a working hypothesis.

And if we’re going to work with it, we’d better see where it takes us. Suppose they just keep advancing and retreating, day after day, week after week. One day, Brega and Ras Lanouf – places you’d never heard of a month ago – are in anti-Gaddafi hands; 24 hours later, they’re back in pro-Gaddafi hands.

Benghazi is the anti-Gaddafi capital; Tripoli is the pro-Gaddafi capital. Libya’s third largest city, Misrata, 200 kilometres east of Tripoli, is slowly being pulverised into the ground. I fear that when we finally see the pictures from there, it will not be pretty.

So, if the soldiers can’t produce a result, what about the politicians? The national transitional council in Benghazi would like to be regarded as the country’s post-Gaddafi government-in-waiting. But no one voted for them, we don’t even know who all the members are, and they haven’t yet been able to hold a meeting at which they were all present.

In Tripoli, the Gaddafi camp, or what’s left of it, continues to breathe defiance. Foreign minister Mousa Koussa is undoubtedly a high-level defection, but let’s not forget that the interior and justice ministers both switched sides early in the uprising, and they didn’t exactly bring Muammar Gaddafi to his knees.

(Thank you, by the way, to the listener who emailed last night, suggesting that we should ask one of my predecessors to interview the former foreign minister. That way, I could announce: “Now, John Tusa talks to Mousa Koussa.”)

Defections are always great propaganda coups; they give the impression of a regime unravelling. But they don’t necessarily bring down a regime. Rudolf Hess landed in Scotland in 1941, apparently in the hope that he could negotiate a peace agreement between Britain and Nazi Germany. Not exactly a defector, maybe, but he ended up in prison (he died there 46 years later, in 1987) and Hitler carried on regardless.

Mr Koussa is now said by British officials to be “in a fragile state” after his defection. According to a US embassy cable written two years ago, he was “the rare Libyan official who embodies a combination of intellectual acumen, operational ability and political weight.” He was a former head of intelligence, a former mentor to two of Colonel Gaddafi’s sons, and may well know the truth about exactly who ordered and carried out the Lockerbie bombing in 1988.

In other words, he’s a Big Cheese. If he’s prepared to talk to British officials, he doubtless has plenty of tales to tell. Most importantly for now, he could tell which other Gaddafi intimates are ready to switch; what Gaddafi’s own state of mind is; and what his sons are up to.

According to one Arab newspaper report this week, Saif al-Islam – the son who established such a close working relationship with the LSE – is now touting himself about as the possible leader of a transitional government to pave the way to democracy, once his father has been removed from power. He is said to have held “a number of secret meetings with officials in the French and British governments, discussing the idea of his replacing his father for a transitional period of between two to three years, in return for a comprehensive ceasefire and negotiating with the anti-Gaddafi rebels.”

There’s no sign at this stage that anyone is much interested in his proposal. But today there are reports that one of Saif’s senior aides has been in London recently to talk to British officials, amid what The Guardian calls “signs that the regime may be looking for an exit strategy.” Several other officials are also said to be ready to switch sides.

If they are, it may be that this uprising will be won not by force of arms, but by the gradual implosion of the State structure. There may come a point when there are more Gaddafi people leaving him than staying – it’s at that point that the game will be up.

But it’s as well to remember that in times of war, what we’re told is not always the unvarnished truth. Sowing doubts is as useful as dropping bombs if you want to weaken an army’s fighting spirit. The black arts of “pys ops” (pyschological operations) are, I’m sure, alive and well.

Perhaps, within the next few days, Muammar Gaddafi’s forces will collapse as more of his senior aides defect. On the other hand, as I wrote last week, we may be in for a long haul. The only thing we can say with any certainty is that no one at this stage can predict how – or when – it will end.

One last thing: I thought you’d like to know that The World Tonight has been shortlisted in the 2011 Sony Radio Awards in the Best News and Current Affairs programme category. In our quiet and under-stated way, we’re rather pleased.