Friday, May 3, 2013

Unexpected Support for Female Drivers in Saudi Arabia

The Prince

The campaign for gender equality in Saudi Arabia received support from an unexpected source recently, a member of the Saudi royal family. On April 15th, Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal tweeted that women should be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, reaffirming his commitment to a movement that has received a lot of attention in recent years. (Jamjoom) Considering Al Waleed’s position in the royal family and his substantial fortune and influence, his endorsement is a significant step towards promoting human rights and gender equality in Saudi Arabia.

Life in Prison for a Poem?

A poet named, Mohammed al-Ajami (picture to the left), previously a student at the Cairo University, was sentenced to life in prison in a private hearing last October on the grounds that he recited a poem that criticized Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani's monarchistic rule in Qatar. A video was released of him privately reciting this poem, and was discovered by Qatar authorities.

His sentence was recently reduced to 15 years and this was by in large due to the fact that his initial arrest was meant to show other possibly dissident activists against the Qatar monarchy would be punished severely. As our class has studied in a monarchy, there is very little room for criticism, especially if this monarch does not collect taxes and provides many public goods. Qatar is the epitome of a well run rentier state. According to the CIA World Factbook, Qatar's government revenues are composed of primarily oil and gas revenues (over 70%). With Qatar owning 13% of the worlds oil reserves, it should be able to rely on this resource wealth for almost 60 years. Because of this wealth, the government has been able to achieve unemployment rates of 0.5%. It is seemingly impossible to be unhappy with the monarchy of Qatar, as they have done an incredible job at making sure everyone is working and provided for.
One hugely important factor that they need to keep a close watch on, is the fact that they also have the largest migrant population as percentage of their population in the world. The giant pull factor of having higher pay and many available public goods has enticed these workers to flock to Qatar, but because they make up such a giant population of this oil rich monarchy, they can actually cause serious trouble for the monarchy. International light is being spread more and more heavily on the lack of human rights regulations for these migrant workers partially due to their winning of a bid for a 2022 FIFA World Cup. Organizations (like HWR) and individuals have started to speak up about problems within the government, and it will be interesting to see how Qatar is able to deal with these outbursts with the international community now paying close attention. Will Qatar be able to increase its rentier effects out to this migrant population and give in to pressures from the international community? It's initially hard to tell, but Ajami did not even speak out publicly and he was initially sentenced to life in prison. Based on this event and others similar to it, it seems that Qatar will have very little patience for any of its citizens that speak out against their regime.

Further Reading/Works Cited:

Burch, Michael. Lecture 4/8/13.

Alsop, Harry. Qatari Poet Has Sentence Reduced, Telegraph. UK. 2013.

Human Rights Watch Organization. Qatar: Promises Little Action on Migrant Workers Rights, HWR. 2013.


Thursday, May 2, 2013

Blaming the ol' Scapegoat

 With his end in sight, it seems Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s good standing has expired among other regime leaders.  According to The New York Times, politicians and clerics alike have begun openly badmouthing their country’s president as the limit of his rule approaches.  State run media outlets have also take up the charge, publishing reports blaming Ahmadinejad for the country’s economic downturn and claiming it is not a result of international sanctions.  While Ahmadinejad has reached his presidential term limit, he has been grooming a protégé in Putinesque fashion: Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.  Iran’s government is such that those who hold the real power are never in a position to face an election and it seems they’ve tired of Ahmadinejad’s antics preclude Mashaei’s presidential chances as well.

This recent overt outcry against the Iranian president reflects what Timur Kuran called preference falsification in his piece Sparks and Prairie Fires.  It would appear that now that Iran’s theocratical regime has openly dismissed Ahmedinejad, others are voicing their true opinions of the impoverished leader as well.  It could also be the case that these people are simply voicing a second set of false opinions more in line with those in power.

It goes without saying that Ahmadidejad often appeared more like a fanatical mad man than a head of state; however, he is far from responsible for Iran’s current state of affairs.  International sanctions and Iranian oil boycotts have taken their toll despite what any state run media may claim.  The root cause of these problems is in the Ayatollah’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the fact that the rest of the world does not tolerate this.  The Iranian presidency and parliament have always acted as a political buffer between the people and the Supreme Leader.  At this point it seems Ahmadinejad is more useful to the Ayatollah as a scapegoat than a figurehead.

Erdbrink, T. (2013, April 30). As election in iran nears, ahmadinejad’s critics are piling on. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Kuran, Timur. (1989). Sparks and prairie fires: A theory of unanticipated political revolution. Public Choice 61, no. 1 (April): 41–74.

Photo from:

Yemen Youth Activist Steals The Stage: US Senate Public Hearing - Drone Strikes

The US Senate Judiciary Committee held the first ever congressional public hearing on Obama’s secret drone strikes revealing a powerful testimony from Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni youth activist and journalist. After being born and raised in the poor agricultural Yemeni village of Wessab Mr. Muslimi received an education in America, which he expressed great appreciation for the opportunity and financial aid provided by the US. Unfortunately, just a few days before the hearing the village of Wessab was struck by drones sand Mr. Muslimi expressed his personal accounts of the psychological fear and terror changing the face of America for Yemenis.
Yemenis are far to familiar with the buzzing sound over their heads from American drones. The escalations of al-Qaida territorial power along side US counterterrorism efforts using drone strikes has left Yemeni civilians caught in crossfire. The public resentment has grown and emerging protest call for an end to the strikes. The US counterterrorism methods in the country have led Yemenis to contemplate joining al-Qaida because they feel their innocent differentiation appears unnoticed as US drone strikes continue and justice for the deaths remains unseen. Many tribal leaders confirm the strikes only strengthen public support of al-Qaida and recommend alternative mechanism to resolving the issue. With the most powerful branch of al-Qaida already laying within Yemen borders the unnecessary risk of future expansion as a result of drone strikes not only threatens the US but also neighboring countries in the region.
Mr. Muslimi describes his concern for these villages and their reactions to the drone strikes along with his own personal sense of insecurity. The drone attacks have dramatically increased in Yemen under the Obama administration shifting the previously dominated missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan led by President Bush. In 2012 Yemen experienced more drone attacks than any other country and the US claims they are filling the gap due to the weak central government control.

The lack of political authority and terrorism remains a major problem in Yemen and Jones explains in The Mirage of the Arab Spring how the uprising increased the countries instability and fractured state as al-Qaeda and other groups attempt to fill the power vacuum across the region. Jones also claims all signs indicate that violence and economic despair will continue to ravish Yemen.
Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the southern successor to Mr. Saleh, has continued the pro-drone campaign claiming to sign off on each attack in Yemen himself. Historically the alliance between Yemeni government officials and US military presence has been uncontested by the local populations but the increased drone warfare across the country has spread a new wave of anti-American sentiment in the region.

The paradoxical nature involving the use of drones to fight terrorism remains a controversial debate.  The extreme fear over the weapons buzzing above haunts the effected locals and drives their participation into the very terrorist organization the weapons target. Fighting radicalism with radicalism will only further fragment the fragile state of Yemen and drive conflicting interest in the region.
Farea al-Muslimi’s testimony stole the stage at the US congressional hearing and became a viral news clip revealing his moving first hand account of the damage caused by drone strikes in Yemen. Mr. Muslimi created a presence for the victims of drone strikes detailing personal complications associated with his US-Yemeni relationship and the widespread anti-American sentiment accumulating across Yemen. The testimony received international attention and will hopefully inspire less counterproductive measure against terrorism in Yemen and other counties in the region.
Al-Shamahi, Abubakr. “BBC News - US Drones Strain on Yemeni’s Dual Loyalties.” Accessed May 2, 2013.

As Obama Shuns Hearing, Yemeni Says U.S. Drone War Terrifying Civilians, Empowering Militants, 2013.

The Fear of Violence Spreading from Syria and Outside Intervention

The Syria conflict goes much further than a Syrian rebellion group attempting to over throw an oppressive unpopular regime. The rebel group is made up of different factions each with different backings in the local and international community. Also the government and its supporters have a complex network of allies both near the region and far away. This web that blankets the conflict makes any sort of international intervention that much harder to act upon. This conflict also poses a fear to the region that the violence in Syria could spread to it neighbors, especially Lebanon and Jordan. Not unlike other conflicts in this area throughout history, religion is playing a big part in who supports whom. The Assad regime comes from a small sect of Islam that is radical but can associate with Shia’s, where as the rebels are mostly made up of Sunni’s. The fear that religious allegiances will transcend borders in the region is a big concern. An example of this has been Hezbollah leaders, mostly Shia, stating that they would aid the Assad regime militarily if necessary and already hinting that they have had Hezbollah fighters operating against the rebels. Hezbollah is based in Lebanon, making the public of Lebanon fear a spillover of violence. Millions of Syrians have been displaced by the violence and have fled to neighboring Jordan and Turkey causing problems in these countries. This has been exemplified in recent violence at the Turkish border when a large group of Syrians attempted to cross illegally. This resulted in a firefight were several border guards were injured and one killed.

The potential for the spread of violence and the recent suspicions of the use of chemical weapons has heightened urgency from some sort of outside intervention. President Obama has been vocal in support of aid to the rebels but there has been little real help. The US did come to the side of ally Turkey, a fellow NATO member, in providing Patriot missiles to protect their southern border but beyond this, there has not been any physical help. Britain and France too seem as though they want to help the rebels but have yet to make any substantial moves. Actions from a powerful outside country, especially a western one, will have far reacting implications and rippling effects in the region. As this conflict continues to develop it will be interesting to see what actions are taken by the US and others. The US will have to navigate the situation very carefully in order to gain an effective result, which in the US’s eyes will be a fall of the Assad regime with a take over of a coalition party and eventually democracy. This will be incredibly difficult in Syria.

Work Cited:

Where Did all the Jobs Go?: Lack of Tourists destroying Egypt’s Economy

           When the Arab Spring descended upon Egypt, political activists were enthusiastic about the possibilities that the new government offered. Unfortunately, two years of protest, high unemployment, and economic instability have left the Egyptians wondering if they were better off under Mubarak. Egypt’s economic woes have once again brought protestors to the streets demanding President Morsi’s overthrow.  Unfortunately, these protests are significantly worsening Egypt’s economic situation because the country is losing billions of dollars in tourism revenue.
            In 2010, the last year before the revolution, the tourism industry represented 13% of the country’s GDP. 14 million tourists traveled to Egypt that year and the industry directly or indirectly employed one in seven workers. Nowadays, the industry offers a different story. Nile cruise boats are left idle on the riverbanks and trinket-sellers practically mob any tourist in site. Tourist arrivals plummeted from 14 million to 9.5 million in 2011. Hotel occupancy rates are barely 15% in Cairo and below 5% in Luxor, home to the Valley of the Kings. But protests are not the only thing driving tourists away. Last February 19 people were killed in a hot air balloon explosion. In 2006, bombings in the resort city of Dahab killed 23 people. Islamist extremists killed over 60 tourists at an archeological site in 1997. The tourism industry was able to rebound from these incidents, although constant negative media coverage on the region could keep travelers away for longer durations.
            The issue of Egypt’s economy is especially important because political analysts are beginning to examine whether the Arab Spring actually increased living conditions throughout the Middle East. For Egypt, it appears that civil unrest and a polarized Islamist government have created conditions equal to or worse than Mubarak’s regime. It has been over two years since the revolution in Egypt and political activists have sacrificed too much to give up now. As their fight continues, Egypt’s GDP will continue to fall.
            The only way for Egypt’s economy to recover is through the achievement of long-term political stability. This is a particularly difficult solution because it appears that the two variables are contingent on one another. People are protesting because they have no job but they have no jobs because tourists are afraid of the protests. Tourism provides critical income for more than 70 industries and 20% of the states foreign currency. Foreign currency is especially needed now as the Egyptian pound continues to plummet. The Good news is: if your interested in Egyptian history, you may just be able to explore some of the Worlds most infamous historical landmarks all by yourself.


Sanctions, Sustainability, and Suppression -- Will Iran's Use of Oil Revenues Reach a Breaking Point?

With the Iranian elections approximately a month away, casual observers are all-too-quickly heralding the downfall of the Ayatollah and his economically "ruined" Islamic Republic. The combined optimism ushered in by the "Green Movement" and a poor understanding of the dynamic Iranian state have eclipsed their attention to reason and reality. Many overlook the capacity of the Iranian government to use what little oil money they are still able to generate to continue buying the loyalty of portions of the middle class and the Revolutionary Guard. Though Western sanctions have had a crippling effect on the Iranian state, they have not wholly eliminated Iran’s oil exports nor its ability to buy off the loyalty of its people. The Ayatollah’s economic maneuverability is being choked, but not asphyxiated...yet.

The Iranian government has equitably balanced their use of their oil revenues to produce both a visible “rentier effect” and “suppression effect.” This use of oil money has thus far proved effective at limiting the expression of public dissatisfaction and cries for regime change, especially since the eruption of the Green Movement in 2009.

Traditionally, the rentier effect is best defined as the use of oil revenue to circumvent the necessity for taxation or to provide free social services and funding to the population, essentially buying off popular loyalty and allowing authoritarian governments to operate freely.  In Iran, taxation is not eliminated altogether, but income and sales tax rates are relatively low, hovering around 25 to 1.5 percent, respectively. Additionally, it is estimated that approximately 60 percent of all taxable sources of revenue are actually not collected on a regular basis in Iran. Certain levels of the military and the middle class are allowed to avoid paying taxes in exchange for their explicit political loyalty.    

Beyond the issue of taxation and the “rentier effect,” however, lies the “suppression effect” that is best exemplified by the Iranian government’s recent campaign of privatization. Since the outbreak of popular protests in 2009, the Iranian privatization campaign has conservatively placed 60 percent of the entire Iranian economy in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard. In 2008, the Ayatollah announced a campaign of privatization that had initially been largely successful in terms of decreasing the breadth of the public sector. In light of the Green Movement, however, this privatization campaign was re-purposed, focusing instead on the transfer much of these formerly state-held businesses and agencies into the hands of the Revolutionary Guard. This has in effect bought off the loyalty of the para-military group and simultaneously given them a much larger stake in the maintenance of the status-quo. Should more protests break out following the 2013 presidential elections, the Revolutionary Guard's loyalty should ostensibly remain with the ruling conservative establishment. Any threat to their economic supremacy would therefore be violently expunged.    

The Western sanctions, though explicitly aimed at halting the Iranian nuclear program, also have an implicit—and much more realistic—goal of eventual regime change in Iran. Iran’s capacity to buy off the aforementioned influential portions of its society has been limited by the sanctions, but when an economy is in free fall as Iran’s is, economic gains and tax incentives become all the more meaningful to alleviate the economic hardships and are likely driving these “bribed” groups closer to the regime as economic conditions continue to worsen.

This system of bribery is unsustainable under the weight of increasing economic sanctions, however, and the Iranian government will soon need to make a decision to cut either its incredibly costly nuclear program or its capacity to buy off the influential sectors of the Iranian populous. It is unlikely that the Iranian economy will be at this imminent decision point by the beginning of the next elections, however. Regime change is certainly on the horizon, but not yet.