Nur al-Cubicle

A blog on the current crises in the Middle East and news accounts unpublished by the US press. Daily timeline of events in Iraq as collected from stories and dispatches in the French and Italian media: Le Monde (Paris), Il Corriere della Sera (Milan), La Repubblica (Rome), L'Orient-Le Jour (Beirut) and occasionally from El Mundo (Madrid).

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Waiter! There's a Hashemite in My Port!

Update: Have been watching the 6-part BBC-2 series, entitled Dubai Dreams. There are 100,000 Britons living a life of luxury in a tax-free haven. Scores of condominiums and villas are going up everywhere, and are sold out before ground is even broken. Half the population are construction workers from India, who, obviously don't get to stay around and enjoy the good life. Dubai seems to be a cross between Disneyland and Las Vegas's Bellagio, where men making a fraction of Donald Trump's income can live like him. Of course, the Donald Trumps of the Middle East live there too! Impressive scenes are shown in the documentary of island-forming as towering ships cascade sand to create yet another residential island. And you have to wonder if Italy's about to run out of marble!

Do we have objections to discounted luxury, opulence and fountains bubbling sparkling water from under the sands? And, um, hey Israel! You look shabby! That's right. Weenie and shabby in comparison! So much for the "beacon of democracy" and "making the desert bloom" talk. You're not so special anymore.

Le Monde's Marc Roche exposes Dubai and its Prince. As we can well imagine, George W. Bush has an unremitting desire for absolutism and the security state amidst mounds of cash and wants to hand his pal a piece of the action. Although, it may be that the US is broke and can't afford the modernization necessary for port security.

LE MONDE | 09.03.06 | An emir eyes a piece of America

Has Dubai been placed in the infamous Axis of Evil, denounced by the US Administration? Over the last few weeks, Congress has directed a veritable artillery barrage in the name of national security at the tiny emirate. Congress has in its sights the takeover of six large US ports, including New York, Miami and New Orleans, by the maritime transport group Dubai Ports World. President George W. Bush supports the $10 billion dollar takeover but he hasn’t been able to sidestep sharp criticism from within the Republican Party. The President of Dubai Ports World, Ahmed Bin Sulayem, has been forced to accept a new study by the US Treasury.

The 10th in succession of the Bedouin Maktoum dynasty, traditional friends of the United States in the region, the new emir, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, hasn’t recovered after being labeled by some in Washington as a sort of “public enemy No. 1”. At 56 years of age, the Emir, who succeeded his deceased brother, Sheik Maktoum, on January 4, 2006, is the proponent of a tolerant and modernized Islam.

He cultivates a demeanor acquired at Britain’s Mons Officer Cadet School and sports Ray-Ban sunglasses MacArthur-style. An experienced equestrian who enjoys endurance races in the desert, the man has been the de facto head of the country since the death of his father, Rashid, in 1990. With a keen anthracite gaze, his dry lips seldom part to reveal a smile. When I met him at the Nad al-Sheba Racetrack, his princely handshake was glacial.

A temple to American-style consumption, Dubai is considered to be a melting pot, with McDonalds and kebabs, mosques and gleaming 4 × 4’s. Prostitutes from the East are permitted to frequent the bars along Sheikh Zayed Road, where rivers of alcohol flow. Women dressed in the abaya, the traditional black ankle-length veil-drape, are seldom seen. Brokeback Mountain, the gay Western all the rage in London and New York is showing in the cinemas.

The former chief of police cleaned out the dens of Islamist activism following 9-11. Since then, the admirers of Osama bin Laden have kept their heads down. In their sermons, imams self-censure their words. Hawala, an informal system of payments used by immigrants from the Indian subcontinent (80% of the population), is severely regulated. It is considered to be one of the means of laundering money for terrorism.

This tough monarch hates discretion and believes only in action. He is a visionary and the true founder of modern Dubai, says journalist Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, waxing lyrical. Knowing that around 2010 its petroleum reserves will run out and hoping to avoid dependence on neighboring Abu Dhabi, whose oil wealth seems inexhaustible, Mohammed has played his tourism, finance and maritime cards well in the mini-kingdom. The meteoric rise of this principality of 1.5 million inhabitants was financed through the recycling of Gulf petrodollars. In fact, the rich men of the region can hide away their assets in a politically stable Arab country, which they believe is likely to remain a capitalist bastion for a very long time.

Every year during Ramadan, a hundred foreign corporate executives are brought to dinner at the palace. A supporter of unfettered economic liberalism, Sheikh Mohammed walks from table to table, inquiring about their business in halting English with a heavy Arabian accent. His fawning assistants take notes. The innumerable construction sites are evidence of an irresistible urge to erect the skyscrapers of the “Little Grasshopper” –one of the Arabic meanings of dubai. Towers of apartments, which foreigners are now permitted to buy, sprout like mushrooms on artificial palm-shaped islands.

In the distance, the port of Jebel Ali, surrounded by its customs-free zone, seems gigantic. Close-up, the largest artificial seaport in the world is simply monumental. The back and forth of machinery on the wharves where giant containerships, filled with merchandise, are docked, is incessant. The cranes in perpetual motion are like zebra stripes on the horizon. This “Middle Eastern Singapore” is developing in every direction: yesterday an obligatory trading crossroads for India, the African continent and Russia. Today the East Coast of the United States is at the heart of the “Dubai World Ports Affair”. Jebel Ali is considered on of the greatest successes of Dubai Incorporated, a family enterprise of which the prince-builder is the single owner and stockholder.

The love of horses united us, but it was destiny which has joined us, explains Princess Haya, his fourth wife and half-sister to King Abdallah of Jordan. And what has happed to the other three wives, who gave the Emir 17 children? It’s a state secret. Beautiful, proud and the image of her mother, Queen Alia, Princess Haya, married in 2004, symbolizes dynastic anchoring, encouraged by the United States, with Jordan. Since the wedding, Dubai manna fills the empty coffers of the Hashemite Kingdom.

In exchange, Sheikh Mohammed disposes of a solid ally, his brother-in-law King Abdallah, to oppose his traditional rivals, Saudi Arabia, the main investor in the prosperity of Dubai, and neighboring Iran. The Saudis have territorial ambitions toward the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a member. Iran is considered the prime instigator behind Shi’ite expansionism in the region. The Head of State is his brother Hamdan, responsible for finance and the municipality of Dubai. His uncle, Ahmed Bin Saaed, who directs the national air carrier, is also one of his confidantes. In order to realize his vast, ambitious plans, Sheikh Mohammed counts on them, but he is also surrounded by a small circle of sure and devoted State Assistants.

Mohammed Gergawi, who heads the Executive Office, a post equivalent to Chief of Cabinet, is in charge keeping the government machine running. This young Emirati also controls Dubai Holdings, managers of the city-state’s strongbox where the bonanza of industrial and financial holdings are kept. Mohammed Ali Alabar, the Managing Director of Dubai Development, is also president of the real estate promotinon compay, Emaar.

Last, Sultan Bin Sulayem, in charge of ports and duty-free zones, has control of two other concerns: Nakheel (real estate) and Istithmaar (finance).

Although the prince gladly wears the local jellaba, the dis dasha – his collaborators cultivate US managerial style. The sheikh listens to their advice. But this omnipotent monarch with overwhelming authority carefully monitors the smallest details and decides alone and quickly behind his desk, stacked high with architectural drawings. Distrustful and secretive, Mohammed often gives ambiguous directives. He does not care for those who succeed too obviously. His liegemen compete like horses at the track where the only the best are victorious, jokes an Emirate habitué, alluding to the celebrated Godolphin Stables, housing 3,000 thoroughbreds owned by the ruling family.

Beset by the chaotic traffic jams, often worse than in Los Angeles, the Head of State removed his own brother as roads and highways supervisor. It is, however, impossible to meet with Sheikh Mohammed without first dealing with his three Cerberus, with all the run-around you can imagine, deplores an international attorney. In fact, they keep the Sheikh isolated from discordant voices and help to reinforce his megalomania…

On the one hand, there is ostentatious prosperity with nothing too beautiful or too expensive. On the other hand, there is the shady aspect to the “miracle”. Just as in other Gulf monarchies, the personal fortune of this nabob from out of The Arabian Nights is confounded with that of the State. There is no public accounting worthy of the name. Despite the strains of an ode for reformism, the city remains an immense boomtown where, if its detractors are to be believed, everything is allowed: clandestine immigration, human trafficking, product counterfeiting and money laundering. Foreigners can buy a luxurious apartment in cash, without revealing the source.

The Dubai International Financial Center, the brand new extraterritorial financial center, has some form of regulation but it is directly controlled by the Palace. The first regulator, Philip Thorpe, recruited from London for his weight in gold, was fired without indemnity in the summer of 2004 after officially protesting against speculative purchase of three lots by men close to the sovereign.

In the age of the War on Terror, the occupation of Iraq and the arm-wrestle with Iran, the strategic importance of the former Pirate Coast has caused the United States to turn a blind eye to dysfunction in Dubai. Sheikh Mohammed is a precious ally. But from there to permitting his takeover of six large US ports is a line which Congress is evidently not prepared to cross.

Marc Roche

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