A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Archive for the ‘Qatar’ Category

eau d’abaya

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 16, 2009

Americans whose knowledge of the Arab world – and particularly the Gulf – comes solely from television and other media miss out on one crucial aspect of life in the region: the delightful way that women smell. This is a perfume-friendly region, and while walking past a man has often left me choking in a plume cloud of the local version of Drakkar Noir, walking past a woman has more often left me just plain envious.

The perfumes I smell aren’t ones I associate with Americans – and certainly far from the ones I wear (Opium, Narcisse, Liberté). They’re full of baby powder and light florals, which should smell nauseatingly sweet but instead smells delightful. And they instantly make me feel that my perfumes smell heavy and overdone.

So when I found myself at the Four Seasons spa in Doha, cleaning up after spending an afternoon on its beach, I clustered around the grooming table with several abaya’ed women. We dried our hair, fussed with face creams, and … tried on the spa’s suggested perfume.

It wasn’t anything like my usual perfumes. It was full of baby powder and light florals, and it had a name that suggested both a spa experience and an ESL moment: Pure Treat Blossom. I loved it.

I smell like an abaya! I told my aunt happily when I returned home. She smiled – she knew exactly what I meant. And I was even happier later that evening, when a short Amazon search told me that I could smell like an abaya for some time to come, for only $12.99 plus shipping:

060_PureTreatBlossom

Pure treat, indeed :).

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Posted in fashion, Qatar, women | 3 Comments »

imagining a big bottle of water

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 28, 2009

Generally speaking, I prefer not to be a spectacle. In public, I like it best when people look at me once, decide that I am of no particular interest, and move on to look at other things.

But sometimes a little spectacle is a worthwhile price to pay for a great outing – as when my aunt and I go out with some of her Doha friends.

The morning after I arrived in Doha, we went to the beautifully restored Souk al Wakif for breakfast with Umm M and three of her daughters. I hadn’t seen any of the Umms in four years, and it was a delight to reconnect.

Our outing was a delight for everyone in the souk that morning as well. To the untrained eye, we don’t look like a group that should belong together. Some of the Umms wear niqab; some wear abayas with headscarves. I dress in the Gulf in what might be best described as “bohemian music teacher” style: long swoopy skirt, long-sleeved shirt, and hair left to its own messy devices. The khala wears tea-length linen or cotton dresses. As a group, we look like a live-action staging of Sesame Street‘s “One of these things is not like the other” series.

We know this, and we accept that together we are indeed spectacular. (The six of us think that the stares are kind of a hoot, actually.)

After gracing the souk with our collective presence, and providing its merchants and shoppers with ample topics for morning chats, we entered one of the nicer restaurants and sat down for a heart-healthy breakfast of hummus and falafel.

Our waiter, a young Levantine man with beautiful eyes, did his best to act nonchalant, and to cope with the fact that each item ordered prompted extensive discussion among the five of us, in a mixture of Arabic and English. And this is where things got tricky.

Umm M had been doing most of the ordering – in Arabic. But when he asked whether we wanted anything to drink, our ordering was derailed by the need to count and recount the number of women who wanted tea. I love tea, but only with milk, so I wanted to be sure that we had water as well.

Ou 2aninat mai2 kabireh, please, I said.

It didn’t seem like a difficult request. After all, I was the person nearest to him, I was speaking clearly, and I wasn’t whispering.

I’m sorry? the waiter said, looking at me as if I had just broken into Japanese.

Sigh. I’ve mentioned my troubles with the Arabic word for “water” before – but the problem was one of having a culturally awkward pronunciation (Syrian rather than Lebanese), not one of having an incomprehensible pronunciation. And “large bottle of water” is a phrase that I have said at least one thousand times – so I didn’t think that I had mucked it up too badly.

I tried again, in English, with Umm M backing me up in Arabic.

When the waiter left, she burst out laughing.

Did you see, IntlXpatr? she asked my aunt. The waiter looked at her and couldn’t imagine that she was speaking Arabic – so he didn’t understand her.

Thank you, I said. I was beginning to wonder whether I had really lost my Arabic.

I haven’t lost it, but I did forget how jarring it is for people when I speak – a total face and language disconnect. In Beirut I used to find that people were much more willing to take me as an Arabic-speaker when I kept my sunglasses on.

So: lesson learned. The next time we have breakfast with the Umms, I’m going to add to our collective spectacle by wearing a pair of massive sunglasses inside the restaurant :).


Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, family, food, friends, Qatar, women | 2 Comments »

charitable Qataris

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 21, 2009

Good morning to you from a slightly soggy big apple. I have another new friend whom I would like to share: the cheery, charitable Mammud Ali Hassan. His email follows below, with running commentary.

Asalaam Alekum!

[Now: you and I both know that this email is about to introduce a dying man with a will toward charity and unhelpful relatives. Why use an exclamation point, which looks so perky?]

Dear Friend,

As you read this, I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, because, I believe everyone will die someday. My name is mammud ali hassan a qatari and a merchant in Dubai, in the U.A.E.I have been diagnosed with Esophageal cancer…..

[I struggled for a long time to pronounced Arabic’s aspirated “Haa”. I see that Mr. Hassan has instead switched it out for a second “meem”. Sure seems a bit of a casual approach to a resonantly religious first name.]

It has defiled all forms of medical treatment, and right now I have only about a few months to live, according to medical experts. I have not particularly lived my life so well, as I never really cared for anyone(not even myself) but my business. Though I am very rich, I was never generous, I was always hostile to people and only focused on my business as that was the only thing I cared for. But now I regret all this as I now know that there is more to life than just wanting to have or make all the money in the world. I believe when Allah gives me a second chance to come to this world I would live my life a different way from how I have lived it.

[Two comments here: First, I believe you mean “defied”, although perhaps doctors do feel that their treatments are defiled when unsuccessful. Second, you believe in reincarnation? Are you Druze?]

Now that Allah has called me, I have willed and given most of my property and assets to my immediate and extended family members as well as a few close friends. I want Allah to be merciful to me and accept my soul so, I have decided to give also to charity organizations, as I want this to be one of the last good deeds I do on earth. So far, I have distributed money to some charity organizations in the U.A.E, Algeria and Malaysia. Now that my health has deteriorated so badly, I cannot do this myself anymore.

[Good for you – money spent on others is always well spent. Fairly random selection of countries, though.]

I once asked members of my family to close one of my accounts and distribute the money which I have there to charity organization in Bulgaria and Pakistan, they refused and kept the money to themselves. Hence, I do not trust them anymore, as they seem not to be contended with what I have left for them.

[Bulgaria and Pakistan? Great, although again: how on earth did you choose these countries over others?]

The last of my money which no one knows of is the huge cash deposit of $35M million dollars $35M that I have with a finance/Security Company abroad. I will want you to help me collect this deposit and dispatched it to charity organizations.

[I’m hoping here that you mean “securities” and not “Blackwater”.]

Please endeavour to reply me via my private email address of   for confidentiality. I have set aside 10% for you and for your time.

[I didn’t delete his “private email address” – he didn’t provide one.]

God be with you,

MAMMUD ALI HASSAN.

[Love the final period.]

Posted in advertising, Arab world, Qatar | 1 Comment »

revenge, Saudi style

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 9, 2008

After Qatar’s success in getting Lebanon to return at least to its usual dysfunctional functionality, there was much speculation as to how the Saudis felt about being upstaged by their smaller neighbor.

Thanks to this article from Saudi Arabia’s English-language Arab News, I think we now know:

RIYADH, 9 June 2008 — The Saudi Vs. Lebanon match held at the King Fahd International Stadium here on Saturday had an unusual start after officials mistakenly played the wrong national anthem. Fans were left shocked and Lebanese players were visibly angry when the Syrian national anthem began blaring from the stadium’s speakers, the Arriyadiyah sports daily reported yesterday. Officials quickly realized their mistake, and eventually played the correct national anthem. However, the error, which was committed by the organizing officials of the tournament, prompted the President of the Saudi Football Federation, Prince Sultan ibn Fahd, to order an official investigation into the incident. Saudi Arabia went on to win the World Cup qualifying match 2-1.

The Saudis played the Syrian national anthem for the Lebanese soccer team. I don’t mean to, but I am totally laughing out loud.

Posted in Arab world, Beirut, Lebanon, music, neighbors, politics, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, vanity, words | 7 Comments »

clean-up crew

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 16, 2008

Yesterday afternoon H took me across town for my bi-monthly surrender to vanity, otherwise known as a facial. Yes, I know: grooming while Rome burns. But there’s no sense in having my skin care regime collapse just because the Lebanese state is.

We took the Fouad Chihab overpass – the same one we tried to take last Thursday. There were no burning tires this time, but there were plenty of dirt mounds. It was a funny kind of blocking: we couldn’t go all the way across the overpass, but we could go part way, exiting onto a small side street that looped us through the back end of Zoqaq al-Blatt before depositing us on the road that leads up to Sodeco with Monot on the left. Well, the road that usually leads up to Sodeco – in order to get there, we had to cross over to Tariq al-Sham, the old Green Line.

We had done the same trip the night before on our way to dinner at Monks, so we knew all the ups and downs and loops all around that it required. But yesterday was the day that the Arab ministers were expected to propose a framework for solving the current Lebanese crisis, and on Fouad Chihab both government and opposition were preparing to do their bit when the time came:

 See the two bulldozers and all the men gathering around? We saw opposition men in regular clothing, darak/ISF soldiers in their white and black camouflage uniforms, Sukleen workers ready to sweep the street clean of any remaining garbage, and the beginning of a press cotillion to cover it all.

Its still not totally normal here – the requirement for today’s scheduled dialogue session in Doha is a return to the status quo of May 5, but Hizbullah security men (boys, really) are still lurking in my neighborhood, and I saw the same SSNP “protection forces” in Hamra when I walked through this morning.

Or maybe this is the new normal. After all, the Lebanese are nothing if not adaptable. So perhaps in a week or so I’ll think of my neighborhood’s invading goons with the same affection that I feel for the coffee vendor. Especially since I think that the reason he no longer sells coffee on my street is that he’s too busy with his other job: as supervisor of the Hizbullah boys. The new normal, indeed.

Posted in Arab world, Beirut, garbage, Lebanon, media, politics, Qatar | 1 Comment »

No ‘Kingdom’ in the emirates – but definitely in the republic

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 12, 2007

The Kingdom – the new, reputedly Syriana-esque movie (set in the Gulf and featuring a more nuanced portrait of live there) – is out, but not everywhere. Its been banned in Kuwait and Bahrain (all the more reason for my aunt & uncle to come to Beirut next weekend!) for a “false depiction of facts”, according to the New York Times and AFP. But the UAE and Qatar are showing the film, and Saudi Arabia, for which banning is something of a non-issue since the kingdom has no cinemas, has said nothing.

Arab News, the English-language Saudi paper, published a round-up of opinions and concluded that banning the film was “counter-productive” and that Saudis should be permitted to see how other parts of the world – in this case, the US – see them.

Meanwhile, I checked the movie listings yesterday morning and saw that The Kingdom is playing here – in the ABC mall, at least (no word on whether it will find an audience in Verdun!). It probably isn’t a great movie, but I bet its great on a lazy Eid afternoon:).

(On the other hand, Jack Shaheen, who pioneered social science research on the depiction of Arabs in Hollywood movies, is very critical. His review concludes with: In a time that calls for cultural understanding, we get crude antagonism. In a time that calls for nuance and clarity, we get dangerous simplifications and gross distortions. So … if you do see the film, think carefully about what you are seeing.)

Posted in Arab world, Bahrain, Beirut, film, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia | Leave a Comment »

Economic Freedom

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 5, 2007

How free are you?

Economic freedom is “the freedom to engage in economic transactions, without government interference but with government support of the institutions necessary for that freedom, including the rule of law, sound money [i.e., a national currency carefully managed to prevent inflation], and open markets”. (Source: Deardorff’s Glossary of International Economics)

The results of the 2007 Index on Economic Freedom, which ranks 161 countries on the basis of how they perform in ten areas, have recently been released.

Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, the United States, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Ireland are the top seven, with freedom indices of 80% or higher. These are the world’s “free” countries, at least in economic terms.

Many Arab world states fall into the Index’s “moderately free” category, with indices ranging from 60.0 to 69.9% free:

Bahrain is #39/68.7%.

Jordan is #53/64% .

Oman is #54/63.9%

Kuwait is #57/63.7%.

Qatar is #72/60.7%.

The UAE is #74/60.4%.

Lebanon is #77/60.3%.

The Index defines states with indices from 50.0 to 59.9% as mostly unfree, including:

KSA is #85/59.1%.

Yemen is #122/53.8%.

Only Syria, at 142/48.2%, falls into the Index’s “repressed” category.

(Iraq is listed as unranked while Palestine is not listed.)

The Arab state rankings are interesting because they present several puzzles:

Why is the Emirates doing so well financially, while Bahrain is languishing, when their rankings suggest the reverse should be true? Economic freedom is important, but clearly by no means the sole determinant of a particular country’s business appeal.

As a follow-up, I note that Lebanon and the UAE differ by only 0.1%. Why is Lebanon languishing in such doldrums? During last month’s trip to Dubai, I spent considerable time thinking of the emirate as what-Lebanon-could-be if only its leaders had made smarter business decisions over the past fifteen years. This index makes me wonder what I am missing – whether even an incredibly transparent economic climate here could compensate for all the rotten politics.

What is little Oman up to, with its friendly business climate? I remember the country as being beautiful and the people warm and welcoming, but I know little about its business activities.

And finally, Syria. Two summers ago I attended a World Bank conference in Damascus, in which several Syrians became irate when the economists presenting their findings stated that Syria’s productivity levels are no higher than Yemen’s. Apparently, productivity was only the tip of the economic iceberg – Yemen is considerably more free than Syria. Certainly sectors of the Syrian economy – including the growing private sector – are booming today, but … what a damning statistic, to see the country ranked 20 below any other Arab state and 70 or 90 below its immediate neighbors.

A bit of background information on the Index:

Research for the Index is undertaken by the Heritage Foundation, a major pro-free enterprise Washington think tank, and the Wall Street Journal. Both the foundation and the paper have a small government and highly capitalist bent, but also a commitment to accuracy. In other words, the Index is created by organizations with a particular vision, but the research is still good, as long as you remember that the economic freedom measured here is more relevant to entrepreneurs and business owners than wage workers.

The Index’s website lists the ten freedoms under consideration and defines them as follows:

  • Business freedom is the ability to create, operate, and close an enterprise quickly and easily. Burdensome, redundant regulatory rules are the most harmful barriers to business freedom.
  • Trade freedom is a composite measure of the absence of tariff and non-tariff barriers that affect imports and exports of goods and services.
  • Monetary freedom combines a measure of price stability with an assessment of price controls. Both inflation and price controls distort market activity. Price stability without microeconomic intervention is the ideal state for the free market.
  • Freedom from government is defined to include all government expenditures—including consumption and transfers—and state-owned enterprises. Ideally, the state will provide only true public goods, with an absolute minimum of expenditure.
  • Fiscal freedom is a measure of the burden of government from the revenue side. It includes both the tax burden in terms of the top tax rate on income (individual and corporate separately) and the overall amount of tax revenue as portion of GDP.
  • Property rights is an assessment of the ability of individuals to accumulate private property, secured by clear laws that are fully enforced by the state.
  • Investment freedom is an assessment of the free flow of capital, especially foreign capital.
  • Financial freedom is a measure of banking security as well as independence from government control. State ownership of banks and other financial institutions such as insurer and capital markets is an inefficient burden, and political favoritism has no place in a free capital market.
  • Freedom from corruption is based on quantitative data that assess the perception of corruption in the business environment, including levels of governmental legal, judicial, and administrative corruption.
  • Labor freedom is a composite measure of the ability of workers and businesses to interact without restriction by the state.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, economics, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, media, news, politics, Qatar, research | Leave a Comment »

What a waste it is to lose one’s minds: reversing the Arab world’s brain drain

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 10, 2007

On Wednesday, the Oxford Business Group published a briefing on Qatar’s efforts to reverse the Arab world’s decades-long “brain drain” of scientists and other trained professionals. The Qatar Foundation has been at the vanguard of creative, problem-solving approaches to build a better future for the region, and its latest two initiatives, the Qatar National Research Foundation and the Qatar Science and Technology Park, look equally promising.

Qatar’s efforts are admirable because they address not only the problem of training, but also, and more importantly, that of retention. As conference proceedings published by the Dialogues Project last year indicate, many Arab world scholars would like to return home, and put their talents and professional experience to work for their countries of origin. However, these countries have done a remarkably poor job of supporting scientific research and – worse – scientific inquiry.

The proceedings read a bit choppily but are worth slogging through for the issues they raise:

Mr. Bulliet launched this portion of the [panel] discussion by questioning the relationship between Western–trained Muslim scientists and scientific development in their home countries[, asking why so few return]. Just as the repatriation of U.S.–based Chinese and Indian scientists has contributed in no small measure to these countries’ recent economic successes, could the same not be true for the Muslim world? Mr. Ali responded that, at this point, many Muslim scientists return to their countries of origin only to find that they cannot make a significant contribution in the absence of a professional environment conducive to sustained scientific creation. With scarce research possibilities and a culture of bureaucratic and institutional impediments—and with no apparent leadership invested in resolving these problems—Muslim scientists often find it impossible to live and work in their home countries. The Islamic world must culturally reinvest in the sciences to stem this brain drain.

What I like about the Qatari initiatives is how broadly they define science and scholarship. During the month of February, the Qatar Foundation ran an advertisement here in the Lebanese press, requesting that scholars working in the field of Islamic studies (broadly, and self-, defined) send their cv’s to the Foundation. The Foundation is working to build a database of scholars, as the first step to establishing an ‘Islamic Studies Program’ – a think tank of sorts, with fellowships, scholarships, and conference programs promoting research and debate within the ‘diverse’ field of Islamic studies. Here is the (English language) advertisement:

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And here is the OBG article:

Strategies for Scientific Development

In the past, the countries of the Middle East have had trouble holding onto their scholars, with the Arab world accounting for over 30% of the global brain drain from developing countries to the West. A 2004 study by the Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies in Cairo found that 45% of Arab students who studied abroad did not return home after graduating, choosing to apply their skills not in the institutions of their homelands, but in the better-funded labs of the West, primarily in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada.

Speaking at the Founding Conference of Arab Expatriate Scientists in Doha last year, Abdelwahab El-Affendi, a senior research fellow at the London-based Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University, attributed the lack of pro-active scientific research and development in the Middle East to political and social factors, the lack of inter-institution cooperation, and what he described as, A systematic pattern of didactic and innovation-discouraging of education. Harsh words, but are things now beginning to change?

Last year saw the establishment of the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF), which, it is hoped, will be able to steer the country along its intended path of becoming a knowledge-based economy, with a base of high-value industry to make up for the low population in the country. While an official strategy is expected to be announced in April, the QNRF stated the first phase will focus, primarily on goals related to building human capital, while the second and third phases will address other national needs and opportunities, expand non-QNRF funding and raise Qatar’s profile in the international research community.

We will have to wait until April to see the exact details of the strategy, but Qatar has been seen as developing a dialogue between the key players in the country – the government, academia and the private sector – in order to steer the development along a sustainable route. Anqi Qian, the director of Strategic Initiatives at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, said: The challenge is to keep a balance between patience and urgency. Patience in that establishing research takes a whole ecosystem of universities, industry and governmental support. Urgency in that the future of Qatar will be shaped by when the national research strategy begins to bear fruits.

Qatar is also developing relations with other countries in the region and last year, the Qatar Foundation organised the 1st Conference of Arab Expatriate Scientists in Doha, under the patronage of Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned. Abdulla al-Kubaisi, the chairman of the Qatar Science & Technology Park, said that Qatar was seeking to pool resources from its neighbours and the entire Middle East in a bid to make up the shortfalls of its own small population and limited human resources. The topics covered in the conference, which brought a number of highly-respected Arab scientists from across the world, were a clear indication of Qatar’s desire to diversify its industrial base, including working sessions on such matters as biomedicine, biotechnology, ecology and information technology, among others. While the traditional oil and gas sector in the country remains key to investors, 2006 witnessed a growth in investments in the electronics, minerals and processing sectors, as well as in tourism and property development.

However, the rest of the world is not standing still. In Europe, which trails far behind Japan and the US in terms of research spending, the European Research Committee (ERC) was pledged 7.5bn euros by the EU at the end of February this year to carry out fundamental, or blue skies studies up until 2013. The ERC said the types of projects it funds must be at the frontiers of knowledge, that it is looking for excellence and has directed its first grant call not at established names, but at emerging new talent, promising to hand out grants totalling 300m euros in 2007 to the most promising up and coming researchers. This may prove to be one more threat to Qatar in terms of brain drain that it can ill-afford.

While developing a long-term strategy is one element, the most forward-thinking strategy cannot succeed without financing and business incentives. To this end, in November last year, the Qatari government promised to pump 2.8% of GDP into scientific research (the US invests 2% of GDP) and offered incentives for firms involved in research work, including tax breaks and increased funding for schools and universities to improve education in sciences.

So the scene is set, and come April, the results of the labours of all those involved in setting up the strategy will become clear. The goal of becoming a knowledge-based economy may be a long hard climb, but the necessary elements of industry, finance, education and legislation are in place. How these are coordinated in the future will be the key to sustainability.

Posted in Arab world, economics, Islam, media, news, Qatar, research, science, travel | 4 Comments »

praising God in the Middle East

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 9, 2007

I subscribe to a daily Bible verse, reading from the Bible, and “living lectionary” devotional email service offered free from the American Bible Society. (I keep looking for something similar with daily ayas and suras from the Qur’an, but – aside from an organization in Britain that charges for the emails – have found nothing.)

Ordinarily, I must confess, I read the Bible verse most attentively (its short), the reading with a rapidly decreasing attentiveness (after the first paragraph my thoughts wander), and the living lectionary gets a mere eyeballing.

This week’s lectionary had a more “local” flavor, though:

This week we remember to pray for the work of the Bible Societies in:

Gulf States (Mideast) –

With thanks to God for the Year of the Family 2006 campaign which emphasized the importance of the Christian family in today’s world, and with thanks to God that three new Bible outlets were inaugurated in 2005 and 2006, providing better facilities and access to the Scriptures, and with prayers for the development of Bible Society work in Qatar and for the Arabic Scripture program;

Iraq –

With prayers for peace in that nation and for the Bible Society team, with thanks to God for the miraculous work in difficult circumstances and for the steady growth in demand for Scriptures, and with prayers for the Kurdistan region, for Bible work there and for the opening of a new Bible Society branch in Erbil, and with prayers for the new shop in Mosul operated in collaboration with the sisters of the Chaldean Catholic order;

Syria –

With thanks to God for the freedom to distribute God’s Word and for the joy expressed by those who receive it, and with prayers for the completion of the new Christian Resource Center in Damascus which will contain Christian literature and multimedia materials.

I am very curious to know under what auspices the ABS operates in Qatar; certainly it is not allowed to proselytize. I know (from having attended services there, with my aunt and uncle!) that churches are allowed to operate there, and understood (also from same) that a new “church souk” (my totally un-official name for it) was being erected to house all the expatriate churches. How far along, and how fully realized, that project is now though I do not know.

I am also quite delighted to see the mention of Syria, as I am still stewing over Joseph Farah’s characterization of Syrian Christians as living lives of dhimmi oppression. His views came to the fore this fall in the columns he wrote criticizing Pastor Rick Warren for his visit to Syria. In them he described Syrian Christians’ lives as follows:

The only way Christians get along with Muslims in an officially Muslim country is by accepting the role in Islam known as “dhimmi.” Think of the dhimmi life as religious apartheid. It’s a good analogy. Christians are not free to evangelize Muslims. In a civil dispute between a Muslim and a Christian, the Christian’s word is worth less than nothing.

Rick Warren demonstrates his complete ignorance of the subtle repression Christians face in the role of dhimmi.

(Full article available here.)

As an American accustomed to the rule of civil law, I would say that my Syrian Christian friends are oppressed by the antiquated religious laws of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, which govern “personal status” issues (marriage, divorce, custody of children, etc.). They are certainly not oppressed by the Syrian government – or, at least, no more oppressed than their fellow citizens.

Posted in Americans, Arabic, Beirut, Damascus, Islam, Lebanon, Qatar, religion, Syria, teaching | Leave a Comment »

No Room at the Inn: Media-tizing Syria’s New Policies on Iraqi Refugees

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 5, 2007

This is a long, serious, and rather political entry – void of any entertaining anecdotes about my mishaps in Beirut or boondoggle asides about walks to the gym and/or the musicality of local mosques.

Josh Landis has a very carefully thought and very well written piece on Syria’s new visa requirements for Iraqi refugees and the two countries’ relationship going forward.

Here is the first part of his essay:

Syria Shuts Out Iraqi Refugees. Is Arabism Over?


Syria has turned a major corner on its Iraq policy. Almost two years ago I wrote that the Iraq war and the flood of Iraqi refugees it would produce would spell the end of Syria’s pan-Arab laws. The vast number of refugees coming out of Iraq, I conjectured, would force Syria to rescind its open policy of allowing fellow Arab nationals to enter the country without visas. The Baathist philosophy of pan-Arab nationalism has long been under-girded by the refusal to treat Arab visitors to Syria as foreigners on a par with visitors from non-Arab countries. On January 20, Damascus imposed a visa requirement on Iraqis entering the country and those already resident in Syria.

The new visas are good for 15 days, much like visas for non-Arab visitors. Iraqis were previously granted renewable three-month residency permits but Syria now issues two-week permits that can be renewed just once, upon presentation of documents including a rental contract. Otherwise, Iraqis must return home for a month before they can apply again. This change does not extend to non-Iraqi Arab visitors, but it is a first step. Following the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon, Syria also imposed a visa regime of sorts on visitors to and from Lebanon, who must now pay a fee for crossing the border. Arabism, the central tent poll of the Baathist regime, is now being dismantled as Syria ends the free passage of Arab visitors across its borders.

Official Syrian sources on Sunday said the measures introduced by the Syrian government on the Iraqi newcomers were taken for security and economic purposes, adding that the Iraqis’ residency in Syria was still under discussion. Stressing that Syria was “exerting all-out efforts to help the Iraqi people in their ordeal,” the officials explained that Syria was overburdened by the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

The cause of this reversal are many. First and foremost, The flood of Iraqi refugees, which is approaching one million, has overburdened the constrained Syrian economy and provoked an anti-Iraqi backlash among the Syrian population. Housing prices in greater Damascus have risen by 300% over the last three years, in part, due to refugee pressure. Food prices have also risen dramatically. Syrians complain about overcrowding at some schools in the Damascus area, which have reportedly admitted up to 28,000 Iraqi children. In areas where Iraqis have settled, residents say some classes have swollen from 30 pupils to 50. Most Syrians blame the rampant inflation in the economy of the Iraqis. Another worry is the dramatic rise in crime rates, which is blamed on Iraqis. Riots in Jaramana and other areas that have have become centers of refugee settlement are only one indication of the social pressures and economic hardship placed on the average Syrian by the influx of Iraqis.

The United States for the last three years has been demanding that Syria impose a visa regime on Arab visitors to the country in order to allow for back-ground checks and heightened security. Washington has asked Syria to build a counterpart to America’s Home Land Security regime in order to stanch the flow of Muslim Jihadists headed for Iraq through Syria. Iraq and Washington have also demanded that Syria expel Iraqi Baathists residing in Syria, who they accuse of directing the Sunni resistance based in Anbar province. In some ways, Syria’s crackdown of Iraqis is a perverse response to this pressure. Although it is not uniquely directed against Baathist Iraqis, it will allow Syria to claim that it does not protect them and has taken positive measures to restrict the open access of Iraqis to Syria.

Another reason for the refugee policy reversal is Syrian peevishness at being continually isolated by the US and Saudi Arabia. It is tired of being blamed for the lamentable level of violence in Iraq. Syria does not believe it is responsible for the steady deterioration of Iraq, rather, it sees itself as the victim of others misguided policies. Syrians believe they have been more generous than any other Iraqi neighbor in taking in Iraqi refugees and bearing the burden of Washington’s failed policies. There is merit to Syrians’ sense of frustration at being punished for their help. Refugees International president Kenneth H. Bacon wrote in a recent op-ed:

Syria is the last country in the Middle East to leave its borders open to Iraqi refugees. The United Nations estimates that 1.8 million Iraqis have sought refuge in the region, and Syria and Jordan host the largest concentration. It can’t maintain its open-door policy without international support. Refugees already strain social services. Yet, the international response to the Iraqi refugee crisis has been dismal. Despite numbers that rival the displacement in Darfur, there has been scant media attention and even less political concern. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is doing little.

Unfortunately, the price of this spitting match between Syria, on the one hand, and the US and its allies, on the other, will be paid by the vulnerable refugees who do not deserve more suffering.

Where I think Josh misses something is in his description of the Iraqi government’s response to this new policy:

Leaders of the Iraqi government are furious at the new Syrian laws, even though they mimic the visa laws Jordan put in place following the hotel bombings in Amman in 2005. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have barred Iraqis altogether.

On Friday, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told the US- financed al-Hurra television that “thousands of Iraqis are being put in a difficult situation” in western neighbour Syria.

According to al-Dabbagh, Iraqis going to Syria to avoid the violence in their homeland are being given only 15-day entrance visas and some have to leave the country for at least 30 days before being allowed in again.

The UNHCR reported that the number of Iraqis registered with the organization was at more than 46,000 and increasing daily.

Official Syrian sources on Sunday said the measures introduced by the Syrian government on the Iraqi newcomers were taken for security and economic purposes, adding that the Iraqis’ residency in Syria was still under discussion.

Stressing that Syria was “exerting all-out efforts to help the Iraqi people in their ordeal,” the officials explained that Syria was overburdened by the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

Dabbagh called the situation disastrous for Iraqis in Syria, and added: “There is anger among Iraqis over the Syrian attitude and there is anger from Iraq.” He called Syria’s attitude harmful and hostile.Josh does not comment on what to me seems a very obvious irony. Dabbagh speaks for the Iraqi government, which should be, at least in an ideal world far removed from the realities of this region, looking out for the interests of its citizens.

Rather than criticizing the Syrians for tightening their borders, why does he not focus on the real issue: the fact that Iraq is so unsafe that its citizens would rather be anywhere but their home.

What kind of government prefers facilitating the flight of its citizens to making the changes necessary to persuade them to stay?

We started this war, not the Syrians. With the exception of Jordan, our allies in the region – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, etc. – refuse to take in these innocent victims.

Criticizing Syria for saying “enough” to the expense and the domestic tensions caused by the million + Iraqis it houses (and the millions more who have passed through) is not merely unfair – it is unjust. As my elementary school P.E. teacher used to say: its time to face the music. We have made these refugees into the ‘huddled masses’ of Damascus and Amman, the ‘wretched refuse’ of divided Baghdad, and the ‘tempest-tossed’ blown about by the cold unwelcoming winds of the Gulf states.

Josh notes that

Some journalists are beginning to speculate that America will have to welcome many more Iraqis as refugees.

I hope we do.

(Josh’s essay includes much more than what I have cut and pasted here, and – whether you agree with him, or me, is very much worth reading.

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