Writing in Asharq Alawsat, Amir Taheri reviews Lawrence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson. The book demythologizes Lawrence of Arabia, noting what he actually did and did not do. There’s far less to the story than the myth (and David Lean’s 1962 film) lead one to believe.
The book also addresses, Taheri tells us, the facts behind two other famous myths, the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration.
The Deconstruction of a Hero
Lawrence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making
of the Modern Middle East
By Scott Anderson
The narrative goes something like this: The British sent one of their spies, T.E. Lawrence, to incite the Arabs to revolt against the Ottomans. Thus the British seized control of the Middle East, which they then carved into pieces in a deal with the French known as the Sykes–Picot Agreement. On the margins of the main events, the British also issued the Balfour Declaration, which gave Palestine to the Jews who created Israel.
The crucial point in that narrative is to obtain a proper understanding of its central personage: Lawrence.
If you thought you knew all you needed to know about “Lawrence of Arabia,” if only thanks to David Lean’s epic film, think again. Scott Anderson’s magisterial new book retells the story in a way that challenges some aspects of the Lawrence myth.
Al Arabiya TV reports that three Arab films are competing for the Oscar, symbol of the Academy Awards this year. Interestingly, they’re competing in three different categories.
Three Arab films to compete for Oscars
Shounaz Meky | Al Arabiya News
Arab cinephiles will have three regional films to cheer for when the 86th Academy Awards, the film industry’s highest honors, opens Sunday at a ceremony in Hollywood.
Palestinian film “Omar,” directed by Hany Abu Assad, will compete against “The Hunt,” Italy’s “The Great Beauty,” Belgium’s “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” and Cambodia’s
“The Missing Picture” for the best foreign-language Oscar on March 2 in Los Angeles.
Writing in Asharq Alawsat, Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed takes a look at the popularity of conspiracy theories across the Middle East. Conspiracy theories, he says, are a comfort because they reduce complex situations about which many things may be unknown into something that is easily understood. It doesn’t matter whether they are true or not because they serve a separate purpose.
Most of the current conspiracy theories, he writes, actually have the cart before the horse. Situations develop for their own reasons: Saddam Hussein had his own political reasons to invade Kuwait; he did not need the US to tell him to go ahead in safety. He did not need anyone to push him into attacking Iran.
What other states do, though, is to act in response to events and try to shade the events or their consequences into directions to their benefit.
In Syria, no outside force created the opposition to the Al-Assad regime. That was spontaneous action on the part of Syrians. Outside forces — including Russia, China, the US, the EU — will try to find ways that whatever results is, if not to their benefit, at least not to their detriment.
Opinion: Conspiracy theories that will not die
Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed
According to some people, Iraq’s former president Saddam Hussein only invaded Iran during Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini’s rule because he was entangled with foreign parties and only invaded Kuwait after receiving his cue from the US envoy in Baghdad.
Some argue that Libya’s revolution against Muammar Gaddafi was a foreign act and the toppling of Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak was also a conspiracy. Some think the Muslim Brotherhood made it to power because of US planning. The Brotherhood thinks Egypt’s General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi turned against them because of Western interference.
And for three years now, the Syrian regime has been saying that the West is behind the revolution against it, while the rebels insist there’s a conspiracy to besiege their revolution for the sake of keeping Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in power.
A few days ago, my colleague Eyad Abu Shakra wrote an article saying it’s time to acknowledge there are conspiracies being planned outside our region. My colleague, Eyad, is not the only one who sees a conspirator behind every crisis. For decades now, this has been the common belief among intellectuals. This belief was strengthened by books that became popular in the 1960s and 1970s such The Game of Nations by Miles Copeland.
I don’t want to completely deny conspiracy theories because secret apparatuses from each country are involved in activities that are meant to influence situations in a direction that best benefits their country. But there is a proliferation of conspiracy theories in modern history books.
Asharq Alawsat reports on the new flourishing of Saudi stand-up comedians in the Arab world. Deeply rooted in traditional Arabic wordplay, the new generation is being fueled by social media that creates new and wider audiences. YouTube in particular is noted as the launching pad for those who would make their way with clever commentary about life at home and in the region.
Of course, care must be taken. In a world in which even a casual remark can result in being arrested and tried for blasphemy, or under new laws that make it a crime to too-severely criticize the state, there be dragons on the fringes of comedy. I suppose being a Saudi stand-up comic combines the wit of the jester with the bravery of one walking on the high wire without a net below. That’s an even more spectacular performance.
Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—“In Saudi Arabia, the more money you have, the deeper your voice is. But in Kuwait, the more money you have, the higher your voice is.”
Welcome to the emerging phenomenon of Saudi Arabian stand-up comedy. This comic style, now a regular staple of the comedy world in the US and UK, is fairly new to the Arab world, but is quickly gaining popularity, especially among the young.
With a regular roster of stand-up comedians now doing the rounds at comedy clubs all over the Arab world—most notably Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, and Lebanon—and an annual dedicated event, the Amman Stand-Up Comedy Festival, it is fair to say that the phenomenon has very much arrived.
But this should not necessarily be cause for surprise. Many Arab countries are famous for their unique sense of humor, and jokes are often used to deal with difficult political situations or events. Explaining the emergence of the trend, Dr. Hezab Al-Rayyes, a professor of media studies at the King Saud University in Riyadh, told Asharq Al-Awsat that stand-up comedy in Saudi Arabia, for example, was very much unsurprising, since it had its roots in the ancient culture of the Arabian peninsula, when professional raconteurs entertained the public with stories and jokes, catering to the—very much traditional—Arab love of puns and wordplay.
To make my point even more clearly about the hazards of being free with comments, Saudi Gazette provides support:
In his column for Saudi Gazette, Hussein Shobokshi takes to task those Arab intellectuals who dwell on the glory of Arab history while paying too little attention to the present and future. While there certainly is a glorious history, the ‘golden age’ was never quite so shiny as it’s now made to be. There were very real problems, daily problems, that needed to be addressed and solved even at the height of Arab progress. Many of those problems linger, no less in need of being solved.
New problems have arisen over the course of the past 1,200 years, too. For all the wonder of Arab medicine, science, literature and the rest that made the Abbasid period the golden age of Arab science, it does nothing to solve problems like electricity generation or genetic disease. Indeed, honor the past, but don’t try to make it the sole support of your ethos and pride.
The retro Arab!
While it’s perfectly “hip” and “cool” to be nostalgic and look back in fashion, music as well as other types of arts, this state of mind has become known simply as retro. I don’t see the wisdom of being stuck in an endless political and cultural retro state of mind which basically describes the status of the common Arab today. The sheer volume and the massive amount of rhetoric devoted and dedicated to the Arab past in dialogue among common Arabs is simply mind boggling.
This is very alarming, particularly when one compares it to the same amount of “talk” devoted to the now and to the future. The Arabs are simply obsessed with their past and the glory that came with it. This has become a huge psychological entrapment, not allowing them to see the hopes and opportunities of today and tomorrow, which might be an important and serious factor to explain a lot of the problems and disappointments which they face and live in.
While it is perfectly normal and very much acceptable to be proud and nostalgic with a nation’s past every now and then, surely there is a fine line between pride and obsession and once that line is crossed it becomes very dangerous.
An interesting opinion piece from Al Arabiya TV. The writer, a Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, ponders the role of modern technology and its intersection with the politics of the Middle East. Questioning whether the Internet and social media were the means or the end of Arab Spring, he goes on to note that governments can — if they chose to do so — exert far more control of the media than they currently do. Just in surveilling the media, they can learn more about its users than the users realize. He concludes with the observation that perhaps the thought of living in an alternate reality — the one provided by the closed chambers of social media — is enough, at least for some.
The Middle East has met the enemy, and he’s online
It all happened so fast. Tunisia was in America’s peripheral vision; we’d read, from time to time, of mounting protests, huge crowds straining the grand avenues of Tunis, the Arab street finally out on the street.
But then the dictator fell, and so did many a pundit’s career. There rose in their place new voices, closer to the ground, more sympathetic to the reality, more optimistic about the possibilities. Everybody had told us this could not happen. Except it did.
On Jan. 25, when Tahrir square became the center of massive protest, you can bet we were all glued to screens of various sizes.
Drunk on the Kool-Aid
The first revolutionaries knew how to sell themselves, and we were primed to buy. We believed in social media. We got drunk on the Kool-Aid. We worshipped at the altar of technology. What had started in Tunisia wouldn’t stay in Tunisia.
After some three weeks, Mubarak was forced to resign, and the crowds went home, for reasons unfathomable today.
There was an almost messianic fervor to the dispatches I’d get. It was young Arabs, not the stodgy Islamists, who’d change things. Political parties were so 20th century.
Social media would free everyone. Google, Facebook, Twitter. Who needed ideologies?
While Saudi Arabia runs at the top of the usage tables for water and electricity, its GCC partners aren’t far behind. Arab News reports that power and water officials from the organization are seeking to links their systems, that is, to create Gulf-wide networks, but need to get the patterns of use under control. Electricity, produced by burning oil, and desalinated water, produced by burning oil and gas, take a heavy toll on the economies of the countries. They need to find a way to get consumers to understand the true costs of providing these products and services in order to get them to limit their use to what they truly need.
This is going to be a difficult challenge. With utilities being heavily subsidized by government, consumers — whether private or corporate — tend to see the costs as, essentially, nothing. And free things simply aren’t valued. I think it’s going to take more than simple publicity campaigns, though, before something with ‘no value’ come to be seen as important as they truly are.
GCC to adopt unified policy on power, water consumption
RIYADH: ARAB NEWS
Water and electricity officials from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states will meet in Kuwait on Tuesday to discuss linkage project, said an official source. The meeting is being organized by GCC’s electricity cooperation committee.
He said the committee will explore the possibility of implementing the joint legal and legislative rules to strengthen rationalyzing the consumption of water and electricity, in addition to discussing subscribers’ services in the Gulf.
The average daily consumption of water per individual in the Gulf states varies between 300 and 750 liters daily, which is the highest in the world.
This is due to the absence of demand management, government focus on increasing water supply through building desalination plants, and increasing dependence on ground water. Gulf States suffer from low public awareness about the value of water resources.
Once again, the issue of black magic raises its ugly head in Saudi Arabia. This time, though, there’s a good piece in the Arabic daily Alsharq from the Eastern Province (here translated by Saudi Gazette) that points out the logical and moral difficulties in judging one as practicing black magic. To wit: Just how do you prove that something that is invisible and leaves no traces is actually going on?
Justice requires some degree of proof, not just allegation. Proof of magic is awfully hard to come by.
How to prove sorcery cases?
An electronic newspaper recently reported that a housemaid in the city of Al-Ras, Qassim province, had performed sorcery on her sponsor and his family, immobilizing their movements. It said the Commission for Promotion of Virtues and Prevention of Vice (Haia) team specializing in dispelling sorcery and talismans was able to discover and ward off the sorcery at the right time.
The team had safely dispelled the magic the same way the security forces would diffuse explosives. The housemaid, who was not identified, was handed over to the concerned authorities for investigations and legal action.
This means that the case has taken a legal course and will be considered by a court. This step raises a number of legal questions that should be posed to legal experts.
As the woman may seek the help of lawyers to defend her at the court, these legal representatives should then know how to deal with cases involving magic to provide their clients with correct and sound legal advice.
The main question that arises here is: how will anyone be able to prove a sorcery issue? How can anyone prove that the claimant and his family were under a magic spell?
Has humanity been able to invent a device to measure the level of magic in bodies? Will this device be used as criminal evidence in courts, similar to DNA tests and coronary reports?
On of the arguments made in Saudi Arabia against women’s driving is that it would leave the women vulnerable to harassment. That’s likely true.
The problem, however, lies not with the victims of harassment, but with the perpetrators. Saudi males that cannot give unrelated women the same level of respect that they are to give their mothers and sisters are the problem, not the women they annoy. Saudi males do harass women, exemplified in the story running in all the Saudi papers to day about a group of men caught on video — which was promptly posted on YouTube — harassing a group of women at a mall in Dhahran.
Dhahran harassment incident sparks outrage
Jeddah/Dhahran: Abdullah Al-Bargi & Saeed Al-Asmar
A group of young women were repeatedly harassed Tuesday by men at a Dhahran mall, triggering an angry wave of reaction across the country against it.
The two-minute video shows a group of five young women wearing black abayas and headscarves being harassed by a countless number of young men at the Mall of Dhahran.
The men were making funny moves at their victims and verbally abusing them during the terrifying and intimidating chase to the parking lot of the mall. One woman tried to fight back by kicking one of her attackers after he had grabbed her hands in an attempt to hold her tight.
An op-ed piece in Arab News points the finger of blame accurately: on the miscreants who seem to believe that women are fair game, as in targets for their hunts:
And interesting analytical piece from Al Arabiya TV. Media analyst Sharif Nashashibi sees various Arab states on the verge of breaking up, or at least decentralizing, as a result of the political waves created by Arab Spring. From Yemen, Libya, and Iraq, through Syria and the Levant at large, centrifugal forces are pushing Arab states toward fragmentation.
Redrawing the map of the Arab world
The onset of the Arab Spring saw expressions and acts of solidarity throughout the region with those struggling to shake off decades of dictatorship.
This revived long-dormant, proud feelings of pan-Arabism. However, less than four years after protests first broke out in Tunisia, the very territorial integrity of certain states – particularly Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq – is being undermined by conflict and mistrust.
Will he; won’t he? Should he; shouldn’t he? When, if ever? The Saudi media is seized by the idea of US President Barack Obama’s approach to Syria.
It’s pretty clear that Saudi Arabia is down on the Syrian government. If nothing else, it views Bashar Al-Assad as a tool of the Iranians. It is urging the US to take action that will end up with Al-Assad being deposed and the Ba’ath Party chased out of power. It is not exactly clear, however, just what the Saudis see as a suitable replacement.
Writing in Asharq Alawsat, Mshari Al-Zaydi thinks that Obama is dithering and needs to bite the bullet. US action, he says, will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and will provide the tipping point the Syrian people need to help them reclaim their freedom. I’m not so sure about that.
Opinion: A Wake-Up Call
Obama continues to downplay the plans the US is making for strikes against Bashar Al-Assad’s troops, saying that they will be limited, and that it will neither be a full-scale war nor will it be intended to overthrow the regime. All that’s left for Obama to tell Bashar is the coordinates of the targeted sites so that they can be evacuated, and for Bashar and his brother Maher to go away on summer vacation until after the strike is over.
Obama is following a path he hates to travel. The worst news he ever heard from his men was that Assad’s troops have, in fact, used the forbidden chemical weapons, which means that he has crossed Obama’s red line. So now Obama has no option but to reinforce the credibility of his warning.
It is not true that all wars are waged for one reason only. Wars are waged for any number of reasons, such as geographic expansion, resources, religion, patriotism, and even for personal motives—leaving aside the wars sparked by moral embarrassment.
Obama is being pulled into a war the entire world can see he does not want to fight. We all know how Obama shunned American involvement in Syria for two years—despite the bloody nature of the Syrian state of affairs—and how he declined to take a real action on the ground.
In fact, this is a war to restore American credibility. It is also a war to prove the moral responsibility of the West, as much as it is about a shared norm in modern warfare: the abstention from using internationally forbidden weapons.
We have no idea about how serious will this war be. Perhaps all we will see is a handful of missiles, fired to no avail.
It is a source of sorrow that the Arabs have become addicted to repeating the anarchic conduct of denial. In Yemen, pro-Bashar demonstrations took place to express solidarity with the chemical killer, and a Yemeni delegation was even sent to Syria to support him. In Egypt, newspapers—even the sedate ones—are full of various reports critical of the idea of a military strike, and full of talk about conspiracy theories in a manner reminiscent of the Arab media following Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.
Asharq Alawsat also reports that the Saudi government is pushing the Arab League to take action against Syria. That’s not likely to happen, either. The Arab League is mostly a talk-shop. Brave and loud declarations may issue from it, but action is not one of its fortes.
Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Arab League foreign ministers declared Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad responsible for the crisis in Syria, and condemned the chemical attack in Damascus in August, which the US says killed 1,400 people, following a meeting of the organization in Cairo on Sunday.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said it was not possible to wait until Assad killed more Syrians, adding that any move to help the Syrian people “should not be considered foreign intervention.” He further added that “any objection to international action against Assad will encourage the Syrian government.”
The Foreign Minister said Saudi Arabia shared with the Syrian people their demands for deterrent international action against the government. He condemned the Syrian government, which he said used chemical weapons “without mercy or compassion.”
Ahmad Al-Jarba, chairman of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, called on Arab foreign ministers to defend the Syrian people by supporting the possibility of military strikes by the US against the Assad government.
Jarba said: “Syria is living through a catastrophe, especially from the humanitarian point of view.” He accused the Assad government, which “invited armies to kill the unarmed people in the name of resistance and rejection,” adding, “I ask the Arab League to support a military strike against the Assad government.”
Jarba pointed out that there was sectarian incitement behind the suffering of the Syrian people, adding that “fighters from Iran and Hezbollah are killing Syrian people, and Iraqi militias are also taking part in killing our people, too.”
“We want you as Arabs to take a historic stance to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people,” adding “we ask that Russian arms and Iranian sectarian interference are confronted,” he continued. “I ask for the support and help of the Arabs to stop the regime and support the military strike, and what Syrians expect from you is for your stance to be much greater than any Western support.”
So what will happen in Syria? That’s anyone’s guess. No matter what the US does, it will be blamed — by different audiences — for over-reacting and under-reacting, for acting too late and for acting precipitously. It is being blamed for supporting jihadist groups in the opposition as well as not supporting the opposition sufficiently. The US is in and will remain in a lose-lose situation for the foreseeable future.
It might be nice to be able to say, “We’ll just sit this one out and let others deal with Syria,” but it’s not really possible to do that. Syria is a problem for the world, and not just the Arab world. It’s use of chemical weapons, if proved, sets an extraordinarily dangerous precedent and cannot go unanswered. What answers the world thinks appropriate, though, is not at all clear. Why the US should have a clearer vision is its own curious question.
An editorial in Saudi Gazette laments that Arab expectations of a decisive blow against Syria undertaken by the US, UK, and others is not what the US, UK, and others are actually thinking about. Those countries, the writer says, are only considering punitive actions, not ones that will result in the ousting of the Al Assad regime.
There’s a good reason for that, actually, and it’s a pity that Arabs who would wish for more cannot see it. While ridding Syria of the Ba’athist government now helping to destroy the country might be a worthy end in itself, there’s a big question about what comes after. If a power vacuum results, the entire region loses. If extremist groups end up on top, the entire region loses, and what’s worse, those groups will now have access to chemical weapons and the advanced weapon systems now held by the Syrian military. I do not think that the Saudi government would sleep well at night knowing that Al-Qaeda has tons of Sarin gas at its disposal. Nor should Saudi citizenry.
A bit problem with this type of editorial, though, is that it seems to be of the “Let’s you and him fight!” type. Saudi Arabia is providing humanitarian support for displaced Syrians. It is also reported to have provided small arms to certain opposition groups. That’s good. But where is Saudi Arabia when it comes to providing armed forces to overthrow the Syrian government? Saudi Arabia has no “skin in the game”, as it were. Rooting from the sidelines for someone else to take action is pretty inexpensive, if not outright cheap.
In the situation of Syria, the US will lose if it does nothing; it will lose if it over-reaches; it will lose if it does something in between. So why, exactly, should the US be rushing in to take action when Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and the proximate neighbors of Syria are just acting like innocent bystanders?
The Arab world is expecting the United States to inflict serious military damage on the dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad, in retribution for its use of chemical weapons against its people. There is a clear expectation that the devastation that will be inflicted upon the Syrian military machine will permit the Free Syrian Army to finish the job that it has set about so heroically in two years of vicious struggle
Yet reading between the lines of the statements coming out of Washington and London and Paris, there is no clear commitment to do anything more than punish Assad for misbehavior. It is almost as if the airstrikes, when they come, will be little more than a slap on the wrist for a naughty dictator who has been using poison gas on his own people. The intent would seem to be that with a few of his choice military assets blown apart by Cruise missiles, Assad will behave himself and continue to fight his own people without recourse to deplorable, terroristic tactics, such as the use of poison gas.
If this is truly the analysis that is driving the plan for military intervention, then it is not only morally wrong but it also carries high risks of failure. A strictly limited, punitive military campaign that degrades only a small part of the Damascus dictatorship’s capacity to slaughter its own people is absolutely not what is required.