Friday, May 19, 2006

Price of Oil to Overtake Babe Ruth

I think it’s fair to say that for many non-specialists, reports on the international petroleum market don’t make for the most engaging reading. Which is why I tip my hat to the authors of the Energy Information Administration’s This Week in Petroleum for making an efforts to spice things up:

“Some baseball fans have followed Barry Bonds’ every at-bat as he remains just 1 home run shy of Babe Ruth’s hallowed mark of 714 career home runs. While Babe Ruth’s home run total is not the major league record (Hank Aaron holds the record with 755 career home runs), it does hold significance for many baseball fans. Likewise, some pundits have been closely watching the relationship of U.S. average regular gasoline prices to a $3 per gallon milestone.”

No word on whether the Saudis have been injecting their crude with steroids.

Yes, We're Still Here

Dear Readers,

It seems as though we’ve gone on a bit of an unannounced hiatus here on MEW for the past few weeks, and for that I apologize. Our group of contributors is made up almost entirely of graduate students working on the modern Middle East, and with the end of the acedemic year looming many of us have been busy prepping for exams or, in some cases, working on theses due in the next few weeks. Thanks for your patience and understanding.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Discussion on Iran this Tuesday

Readers in Oxford may be interested in an event on Iran being arranged by the St. Antony’s International Review (STAIR) this Tuesday entitled “Iran’s Nuclear Challenge.” The speakers will be Dr. Ali Ansari of the University of St. Andrews and Professor Timothy Garton Ash of St. Antony’s College, Oxford.

The panel discussion will be held at 8 pm in the Nissan Lecture Theatre at St. Antony’s – all welcome.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Visit Syria on a Cruise Ship?!

On a lighter note, British cruise line Voyages of Discovery has announced that it will soon begin stopping in both Lebanon and Damascus on several of its Mediterranean cruises. Multiple stop cruises from major ports in Europe to Syria is unusual -- so unusual in fact that the first page a Google search for "syria cruise" yields multiple links to the Robert Fisk article "Would President Assad Invite a Cruise Missle to His Palace?".

Their November 2007 Ancient Wonders and October 2007 Arabian Treasures cruises are slated to stop in the city of Tartous for one day. They do not give details about possible shore excursions, though there should be many possibilities -- the Phoenician city of Amrit, the old quarter of Tartous, even distant, but magnificent Salah ad-Din Crusader Castle.

This is obviously a welcome development for both Tartous and Syria as a whole. It is also a nice change from the constant assertion by tourist guides that one cannot enter Syria by boat!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Saudi-Chinese Ties

Chinese president Hu Jintao's visit to Washington made front-page headlines but yielded little news. Coverage of the president's next stop, Saudi Arabia, made fewer headlines, but may turn out to have been the more important of the two stops. In Riyadh, unlike in Washington, the Chinese delegation was given an official state welcome and Hu signed several agreement with Saudi King Abdullah.

For the Saudis, who have looked towards Washington for decades as their closest protector and ally, the burgeoning relationship with China and other Asian countries marks an important departure from traditional foreign policy. In an article printed in the NY Times and the IHT, a Saudi who works for a branch of the Chambers of Commerce drew a parallel between the current and traditional policies. "'We are in a Catholic marriage with America,' Bahlaiwa said, emphasizing that divorce was unthinkable. 'But we are also Muslims - we can have more than one wife.'"

Riyadh's desire to diversify its relationships with greater powers is a remarkable policy move. Although, as Simon Henderson points out, the relationship between China and Saudi Arabia isn't progressing without bumps in the road, its continued expansion is the story that should have made the front pages.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Problems with Iran Go Beyond Nukes

A group of law professors wrote a letter published in The Independent on Friday regarding the persecution of Baha’is in Iran. The general point that they make, namely that “concern with Iran's nuclear status is overshadowing its human rights situation” is, I think, an important one. The U.S. State Department’s most recent Report on Human Rights Practices for Iran, released just over a month ago, lists 21 separate categories of human rights problems, and serves as a reminder that while we debate the threat from and responses to the Iranian nuclear program we must never overlook the fact that many Iranian suffer from the actions and policies of their government on a regular basis.

Whether it comes from international organizations, national governments, human rights groups, or the media, drawing attention to these issues is necessary in order to pressure the government to clean up its act. As Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has noted, “Western nations with clean human rights records should urge the United Nations to appoint a special human rights monitor for Iran, to raise Iran's human rights record annually at General Assembly, and to condemn it if the record keeps deteriorating. Contrary to the general perception, Iran's clerics are sensitive to outside criticism. There has been tangible improvement in Iran's human rights record whenever it has been criticized at the United Nations.”

The letter deals specifically with a disturbing confidential document made public in March by the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on freedom of religion or belief – more on that in my next post.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Military Option Against Iran: "Ruinously Self-defeating" or a Potential Success?

James Fallows of The Atlantic has an article on the Iranian nuclear program in the May issue of the magazine. You may remember that in 2004 The Atlantic held a three hour war game run by a retired Air Force colonel and with David Kay, Kenneth Pollack and Reuel Marc Gerecht among the people playing the role of principals. In this most recent piece, Fallows argues that “The central flaw of American foreign policy these last few years has been the triumph of hope, wishful thinking, and self-delusion over realism and practicality. Realism about Iran starts with throwing out any plans to bomb.”

Victor Davis Hanson makes a different case in the National Review Online: "Who knows what a successful strike against Iranian nuclear facilities might portend? We rightly are warned of all the negatives — further Shiite madness in Iraq, an Iranian land invasion into Basra, dirty bombs going off in the U.S., smoking tankers in the Straits of Hormuz, Hezbollah on the move in Lebanon, etc. — but rarely of a less probable but still possible scenario: a humiliated Iran is defanged; the Arab world sighs relief, albeit in private; the Europeans chide us publicly but pat us on the back privately; and Iranian dissidents are energized, while theocratic militarists, like the Argentine dictators who were crushed in the Falklands War, lose face. Nothing is worse for the lunatic than when his cheap rhetoric earns abject humiliation for others."

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Israel post-election

To piggyback on Minda's last post, there was an interesting article in today's Haaretz Newspaper (in Hebrew) detailing what the author terms the "two faces of Israeli-ness." It delves into the personalities, histories, and politics of Ehud Olmert, the leader of the Kadima Party and the next Prime Minister, and Amir Peretz, the head of the Labor Party. Their obvious personal differences and surprising professional closeness aside, one of the main policy commonalities of both political leaders (and, indeed, among both of their respective parties in any upcoming coalition) is the future of Israeli social and economic policy.

Much international media attention has been placed on the diplomatic and military track the country will take after this election vis-a-vis the Palestinians (and deservedly so, I might add). And yet, some may argue that the one overriding election promise that any future governing coalition will have to honor is the reform and rehabilitation of the country's social fabric and the reversal of the gaps in inequality that have been created over the past 5 years under former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu's reform agenda (what some term neoliberal economics, and others term 'hyper-capitalism'). Not only did Amir Peretz and his Labor Party campaign successfully on this platform, but other parties did surprisingly well in addition, such as the Pensioner's Party.

Despite his strong ties to the Israeli business community, Olmert has indicated that he both understands the need for a social policy change and that he is willing to work with his left-wing coalition partners in achieving this end. In addition, it is clear that despite his labor-union roots, "Peretz is no Che Guevera," and that a complete reversal of past market reforms is also unlikely.

Ultimately, we will have to wait and see how these "two faces of Israeli-ness"--the country's past socialist mentality and egalitarian tradition on the one hand, and the state's modern, western-orientated, market-based approach on the other--will reconcile and live with each other. Recent examples in Latin America and other regions have not been promising, as a dramatic populist backlash against market-based reforms and neoliberal economic policies has taken place, often-times resulting in instability and muddled policy direction. It will probably be worthwhile and indicative to keep a close eye on Israel's future social and economic policies, in order to see how the country charts this difficult path for itself.

Post-Israeli Elections

In my first post, prior to the Israeli elections, I mentioned that there casual conversation among students that they would vote for the Pensioner's Party. Those casual conversations turned into six seats for the Pensioner's Party, a win which surprised professional and casual observers alike.

Indeed, the Pensioner's party win demonstrates one of the more fundamental changes that the election results demonstrated: the increasing prioritization of social issues within the Israeli public. This morning's Ha'aretz announced that along with the defense and justice portfolios, the Labor party will receive the education chair, to be held by MK Yuli Tamir. Concern over the situation in the schools - where class sizes have ballooned and violence is becoming increasingly common - as well as the economic well being of the pensioners are the types of social issues that interests the leftist parties which did well in these elections. Even if the leftist parties did not win the premiership, their influence on the elections cannot be overestimated. As I wrote in the Daily Princetonian this week, the Likud was decimated by these results. But the importance of social issues to the society was even seen in Likud commercials urging voters to give party chair Benjamin Netanyahu another chance following the results of some of his economic policies. In other words, by producing such ads, Netanyahu's campaign admitted the criticalness of social issues to the Israeli public. Despite this admission, his campaign failed and whatever the make-up of the upcoming coalition, one thing is clear: Likud will not be a part of it.