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Sunni versus Shi’ite?

The majority of rulers of the Gulf States are Sunni Muslims, while the protestors are predominantly Shi’ite. Iran, which is not ethnically Arab, is the main Shi’ite power in the area. Iran has been accused of supporting the protestors, while Tehran has consistently denied this contention.

Although Iran is facing its own dissenters at home, they have nevertheless taken the stand of backing the spreading protest movements across the Arab Middle East, describing the unrest as an “Islamic awakening” against tyrants and dictators.

"People have some legitimate demands and they are expressing them peacefully. It should not be responded to violently ... and we expect their demands be fulfilled through correct means," Mehmanparast said on the situation in Bahrain.

March 16, 2011

Six are reported dead as troops and riot police used tear gas and other force to evict hundreds of demonstrators from their vigil in Pearl Square in the capital city of Manama, Bahrain. This action came after just one day of emergency rule which had been imposed on the violent-stricken kingdom.

Assault Began at Daylight

Pearl Square has been the center of protests in Bahrain since the unrest began about one month ago. Protestors have been staging a continuous protest there, demanding that the Sunni monarchy relinquish at least some of its power to the Shi’ite majority which makes up the population of Bahrain. Soldiers staged a full-scale assault on Pearl Square, sending tear gas into the crowd and setting tents ablaze. Officials and witnesses said that six people were killed in the action, and at Ibn Nafees Hospital one protester died later from a gunshot wound to his back.

According to Bahrain state TV two policemen were also killed when they were struck by a car as the protesters were evacuating the square. The Interior Ministry also announced that a third policeman was killed without defining the cause of death.

Which Soldiers Led the Assault?

As of yesterday soldiers from other Gulf States were sent to protect Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy but it is still unclear whether foreign troops or Bahraini soldiers, or a combination of the two, led the attack. The military vehicles which were in the attack flew the red and white flag of Bahrain, perhaps indicating that the soldiers were Bahraini. Helicopters flew over the square while protesters ran into side streets and security forces blocked main roads in Manama. Cellular phones were jammed in central Manama at the peak of the assault, and internet access was severely restricted.

Emergency Rule Declared

On Tuesday the King of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, declared a three month state of emergency. According to officials emergency rule bans “rallies and disrupting public order” and demands “movement restrictions” including curfews in some places. The King also ordered his military to fight the civil unrest. After emergency rule was announced there were clashes across the country resulting in the deaths of two civilians and one Saudi soldier.

Bahrain is a small island nation in the Persian Gulf with high strategic profile. The US Navy’s 5th fleet is hosted in Bahrain. Iran has criticized the presence of foreign soldiers in Bahrain, and although there are no direct political ties with the main Bahraini protesters, Iran has referred to Bahrain in the past as Iran Republic’s “14th Province.” Iran has called for a “peaceful” settlement of the dispute between the ruler and the ruled in Bahrain.

The rulers of the Gulf States, who are Sunni Muslims, fear that a Shi’ite victory in Bahrain against the Sunni rulers there could give inspiration to the Shi’ites among their own populations, especially in the case of Saudi Arabia.

Clinton Calls for Calm

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State is afraid the situation in the Gulf States could escalate to full scale war and has criticized what she called "provocative acts and sectarian violence." She also asked the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saudi to urge the foreign forces to promote dialogue and not escalate the violence.

"We call for calm and restraint on all sides in Bahrain," Clinton told reporters in Cairo.

March 17, 2011

The US is reported to have fired two pairs of missiles at a compound in northwestern Pakistan last Thursday. The missiles were fired from an unmanned aircraft at targets where a meeting was being held of about 40 militants who were most likely members of al-Qaida and the Taliban. The area along the Afghan border in the Datta Khel area of the North Waziristan tribal region is known to be a main sanctuary for the Taliban and al-Qaida in Pakistan.

It is not clear exactly how many of the militants were killed. One group of Pakistani intelligence officials gave the number to be 25, while another group said the number was more likely 34.

The militants were attached to one of the more prominent of the Pakistani Taliban commanders in the region, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who has recently been stepping up his fight against foreign soldiers in Afghanistan.

It is far from a new undertaking for the US to fire missiles at militant targets in Pakistan. Such actions have been going on since 2004; however the pace of the missile strikes has increased substantially since 2008. Just last year, in 2010, the US launched 120 such strikes. All the strikes are carried out by unmanned drones and are launched either from inside Afghanistan or Pakistan itself. So far this year about 20 such strikes have been launched, the majority of them in taking place in the North Wazinstan region.

The US does not acknowledge officially that it engages in such actions, and because journalists are forbidden access to the area there is no reliable way to verify the number of dead. The missile strikes have been officially protested to by Pakistani leaders, but it is widely believed that Pakistani intelligence groups cooperate in some of the strikes.

March 21, 2011

The chief executive officer of Dohaland, the company which is redeveloping a portion of Qatar’s capital city Doha, has announced plans for the state run company to raise up to $2.5 billion by the end of 2013 in order to finish the project.

The Musheireb project, estimated to be worth about $20 billion will include the construction of four new government buildings in one of the oldest sections of Doha. Also included in the plan is the construction of shops, a heritage center and a hospital. The project will proceed in six separate phases, the first coming to completion in 2012 and the final phase finishing in 2016.

Issa Al Mohannadi, the CEO of Dohaland said in an interview that, “We are looking at providing our own financing,” after the completion of the first two phases. “There are many options we are considering now and it could be a combination of a number of things,” such as bonds or loans, he said.

The immense building project is part of Qatar’s intensified focus on the future as a country with the world’s third largest reserve of natural gas. In 2022 Qatar will be hosting the Soccer World Cup and wishes to invest in infrastructure and development so it will be able to showcase its modernization and competitive nature as a world class society. Qatar is also preparing for a projected population growth of about 50% by the year 2030, to about 2.6 million people.

March 22, 2011

In response to the air strikes on Libya from the west, oil prices are rising as well as the price of gold. Economists are worried that inflation will set in as gold becomes a safe bet for investors concerned that Mideast tensions will not resolve as quickly as first anticipated.

In addition, analysts are closely monitoring the situation in Japan which seems to have averted a full-scale nuclear meltdown in the aftermath of one of the worst earthquakes in history and the resulting devastating tsunami that took the lives of an estimated 10,000 or more people. The Japanese situation led to three year highs as the price of physical gold premiums surged upwards.

Spot gold posted an increase of 0.2% arriving at a cost of $1,427.86 per ounce at 0706 GMT. This was after reaching $1,434.70 in the proceeding session, which was only $10 from the March 7 record high.

US gold also gained, but just 0.1% to $1,428.20.

"The tension in Libya and the Middle East and North Africa region is supportive of gold prices. There is little doubt that gold would test a new high in the near future," said Li Ning, an analyst at Shanghai CIFCO Futures.

"In the medium to long term, concerns about inflation will continue to buoy gold."

Li also said that worry over inflation has been spreading from emerging economies like China, to more developed economies such as the European countries. If oil prices stay high for too long, inflationary trends could set in, which has the effected of strengthening the price of gold which is the traditional vehicle for hedging against inflation.

March 23, 2011

Jordanian Reform Runs Into Roadblocks

Despite the efforts of King Abdullah of Jordan to move his country to a more democratic system of government, opposition groups, especially Islamists who are the largest and best organized of the opposition, would like to see a faster time-table for change.

King Abdullah appointed a panel last week to discuss changes to the Elections Law and Political Parties Law, but the Muslim Brotherhood announced that it would not join this panel, called the National Dialogue Committee. It is probable that other opposition groups will join the Muslim Brotherhood and stay away from the King’s panel.

"So far we have received no replies from the government satisfying our minimal demands," Hamza Mansour, secretary-general of the Islamic Action Front, explained. Mansour believes that because the committee was officially commissioned by the Prime Minister of Jordan, Marouf Al-Bakhit and not by the King himself, it is unlikely that the panel will have any power to implement any of its decisions.

"In this country, governments have no real say in decision-making," Mansour said.

Jordan has been faced with similar issues as the other Middle Eastern countries who are on the cusp of implementing political reforms into their systems of government. The questions of how fast to change, what reforms to implement, what should the future role of the monarch should be and how or whether he should be implementing the reforms himself. In Egypt the voters did not heed the calls of the opposition to implement change gradually so that the people could organize political parties and other civil institutions. Instead the Egyptian people voted overwhelmingly for constitutional amendments that would bring the country quickly to free elections.

The Jordanian King Abdullah has been faced with the pressure of massive street protests demanding the implementation of democratic changes. Up to now the demonstrators have not demanded the abdication of the King or to give up his power. Abdullah was, however, forced to fire his Prime Minister Samir Rifai at the beginning of February.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan is the most important of all the opposition groups in Jordan. They are represented in the parliament by the Islamic Action Front, and included in their demands are far reforms to the Constitution which will bequeath onto the parliament more power and guarantee the accountability of politicians in the courts.

Three Islamists were appointed to the panel, which has been meeting since last Saturday, but they have refused to join until amending the constitution becomes a topic which is allowed to be discussed. Such discussions would go far beyond what the current panel’s mandate allows, and the government has refused to address these concerns.

The Secretary-General of the Jordanian Democratic Popular Union Party, Sa’id Diab, is also the spokesman for the opposition parties in Jordan. Diab has stated that the other opposition may follow the example of the Islamists and quit the committee this week unless constitutional reform becomes part of the committee’s agenda.

"If the constitution is discussed, the problem will be solved," Diab told The Media Line. "The issue will be clarified today."

March 27, 2011

Mideast News Roundup

Libyan Rebels Retake Brega

With air support from the United States and its allies Libyan rebels have made major progress across Libya—taking the centrally located city of Ajdabiya, recapturing the eastern city of Brega and making major advances towards the important oil depot of Ras Lanuf. Warplanes from the west have been bombarding the strongholds of Muammar Gadaffi, including tanks, artillery and soldiers along the coast as well as near Gaddafi’s capital of Tripoli.

Saudi Stocks Rising

Saudi stocks rose to their highest levels in five weeks as investors are expressing their newly found confidence in the Saudi government and economy, which is the largest of the Arab economies. This outpouring of hope was seen as a reaction to the ordering of the establishment of a housing ministry by King Abdullah.

In addition, the governor of the Central Bank of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad Al-Jasser has declared that the Gross Domestic Product of the kingdom will be “north of four percent” in 2011 but the bond markets in the Gulf Arab State are “not well taken care of.”

According to Majdi Hariri a member of the Shura consultative council of Saudi Arabia, the council may pass the draft mortgage law on April 3rd.

Egypt Expecting Stability Soon

The Finance Minister of Egypt, Samir Radwan, predicts that the Egyptian stock market should regain its former stability as the government makes $250 million available to purchase shares. The market there reached a two year low after a seven week stoppage.

Egypt is also planning to raise $840 million in treasury bills at an auction in Cairo, while simultaneously the Egyptian Central Bank did not intercede to help prop up the value of the Egyptian pound, as it reached its lowest point in over six years on March 24th.

Two businessmen and the former minister of tourism in Egypt Zoheir Garranah are scheduled to go to trial on April 9 for profiteering and enabling the theft of public monies.

March 29, 2011

Middle East Unrest Puts Breaks on Airline Industry Growth

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the air travel industry has been adversely affected by the widespread unrest throughout the Middle East and North Africa during the month of February.

The Director General of the IATA, Giovanni Bisignani pointed out on Tuesday that the industry showed only a 6% growth during the month of February, as compared to an 8.4% increase in growth during the previous month of January. Compounding the problems of February will be the expected negative reaction of the industry to the Japanese nuclear disaster, which will most likely place further pressure on the ability of the airline industry to recover from the recession.

Bisignani pointed out that, "As the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia spreads across the Middle East and North Africa, demand growth across the region is taking a step back."

He added that, "The tragic earthquake and its aftermath in Japan will most certainly see a further dampening of demand from March."

The estimate which the IATA made for the overall effect that the ongoing crises, which began in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other countries has had on the industry is at least a 1% across-the-board total reduction in air travel.

"The industry fundamentals are good. But extraordinary circumstances have made the first quarter of 2011 very difficult," explained Bisignani.

An additional factor in the slowing down of the airline sector comes from the celebration of the Chinese New Year. Shutdowns of Chinese factories over this holiday are partly to blame for the 2.3% growth of air freight as compared to the 8.7% growth rate seen in January, according to the IATA.

IATA is an international organization which represents about 230 airline carriers which make up about 90% of scheduled air traffic internationally, however they do not include some of the major, big budget airlines.

March 30, 2011

Gaddafi Succeeds in Fight for Sirte

Reversing gains made by rebels in the past several weeks after NATO forces gave air support to Libyan rebels; Gaddafi’s loyalist forces took Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown, in their continuing advance east, blocking the way of the rebels’ westward push. Rebels were forced back to Bin Jawad, a town which they had taken on Monday, and the fear is that they will continue to lose ground to Gaddafi’s loyalist forces unless further intervention on the part of NATO is forthcoming.

The US President, Barak Obama, addressed the US last night on the subject of Libya, but did not discuss the position on NATO intervention in any other Middle East countries who have turned to violence to persuade their governments to make major changes.

Syrian Take to the Streets

The cabinet of Syria resigned on Tuesday in Syria. The move was a concession made by President Bashar al-Assad to appease demonstrators, who have not been satisfied with other concessions offered by the Syrian dictator. There have been antigovernment uprisings springing up all over Syria for more than a week, and the disbanding of the cabinet is just the latest move to try and bring calm to the tense situation there. It is expected that President Assad will speak to his people soon and declare that the decades-old emergency law will be appealed.

An estimated hundreds of thousands of Assad supporters took to the streets in Damascus on Tuesday demonstration their loyalty to the President and the present Syrian government, showing the world and fellow citizens that Assad still commands a loyal following among many in Syria.

Yemen Re-Ignites

Tuesday saw another round of protests in the streets of Yemen after a short period of calm over the weekend as demonstrators waited to see the outcome of power transfer discussions. The failure of the discussions to produce any meaningful agreement led to the renewed protests demanding the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh from his office.

April 3, 2011

In order to help calm the violent atmosphere among protestors against the rule of President Bashar Assad of Syria, the president appointed Adel Safar, a former minister of agriculture, to put together a new government. This move is part of several attempts at reform on the part of Assad which he hopes will send a message to his detractors that he is serious about change.

Many people have a genuine respect for Mr. Safar, and his choice as the man to form a new cabinet, in the wake of the dissolution of the previous cabinet last week, is clearly a step on Assad’s part towards his opposition.

In addition to dismissing en masse his entire government last week, Assad also set up committees to investigate civilian deaths which have occurred during the past two weeks of protests and demonstrations against what many view as one of the Middle East’s most repressive and authoritarian regimes. There has also been a call to disband the “state-of emergency” laws that have been in force for decades.

Adel Safar is 58 years old and was educated in France at the French polytechnic center where he received a doctorate in agricultural sciences. Mr. Safar is the director of the Arab Center for Dry and Arid Lands, and was the dean of the agricultural faculty at Damascus University from 1997 until 2000.

The recent civil unrest has proved to be the most serious challenge to the 40-year-plus rule of the Assad family in Syria. The spark that set off this most recent round of demonstrations was the arrest of a number of teens who had written anti-government slogans on walls in the impecunious and drought- stricken southern city of Daraa.

President Assad had not recognized the force of the citizens unhappy with his rule, and has often blamed “foreign conspirators” for the protest movement surging in Syria. Protesters have said that the reforms so far instituted by Assad are simply not far-reaching enough to satisfy their demand for a real, effective change.

April 5, 2011

Dirar Abu Sisi the 42 year-old engineer who was arrested by Israel while traveling in the Ukraine, was indicted yesterday in an Israeli court for being a member of Hamas and for designing rockets for the Islamist group’s military branch.

The official summary of the court indictment, which prosecutors filed in a Beersheba District Court, charged Abu Sisi with belonging to a militant group and with hundreds of counts of attempted murder in addition to making rockets.

The document states that, "Abu Sisi is accused of nine charges regarding activity in a terrorist organization, hundreds of counts of attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and arms production offences."

In addition the indictment alleges that Abu Sisi helped to create locally made rockets which were used by Gaza militants, and was also responsible for “increasing their range and ability to pierce steel so as to penetrate IDF armored vehicles and thus harm soldiers."

The indictment adds that Abu Sisi ran the Hamas military training academy which was begun after Israel’s assault on Gaza in December of 2009, Operation Cast Lead, which lasted 22 days and was designed to halt the threat of rocket attacks from Gaza into Israeli territory.

Smadar Ben-Natan is Abu Sisi’s Israeli lawyer. She explained to journalists that her client did confess to “certain things” but she could not specify what “things” due to court-imposed restrictions. She was able to say, however, that her client’s confessions were given "under very heavy duress which I would characterize as torture."

Dirar Abu Sisi disappeared last month while on a train in the Ukraine, where his wife Victoria was born. Shortly after his disappearance Israel announced that he was in Israel’s custody in Shikma prison in Ashkelon.

The German magazine Der Spiegel has hinted that Israel abducted Abu Sisi because they believe that he has information regarding the location of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was taken in 2006 by Gaza extremists and is still being held.

Both Abu Sisi’s wife and his lawyer assert that he does not have any information regarding Shalit.

A gag order in Israel prohibits the publication of further details regarding Abu Sisi’s case.

April 6, 2011

The wealthy Gulf State of Qatar will have a key presence at one of England’s leading sports events this year as the Qatar International investment and Projects Development Holding Company (Qipco) has signed a “multi-million pound” title sponsorship deal with the British Champions Series.

Karl Oliver, chief executive officer of the British Champions Series said in an interview that the deal “will have a significant impact on the sport as a whole.”

The two year deal gives Qipco exclusive naming rights of the inaugural series plus right of full partnership for the revitalized British Champions Day at Ascot, which will take place on October 15th. This crowning even will award prize money totaling 3 million pounds, ($4.9 million), making this the most sumptuous single event in the history of British horseracing.

“We want to raise the international profile of Qipco and the British Champions Series provides the perfect platform for the company to reach a wider audience,” said Qipco CEO Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani in an e-mailed statement. “Through Qatar Bloodstock, which owns the stallion Makfi, we already have an interest in the British racing and breeding in industry.”

The commercial branch of United Kingdom horseracing, Racing Enterprises Ltd., hopes to use the Champions series to increase the interest in the sport in the country, which has been in serious decline in recent years. Betting income is down, television coverage is in decline, and attendance at racing events is anemic. Long term goals of Racing Enterprises is to remake the British Champions Series in the image of the prestigious and popular Breeder’s Cup in the United States and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France.

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