Thursday, 20 December 2018
Wednesday, 12 December 2018
I stopped over in Qatar recently, coinciding with the first anniversary of the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, intended to punish Qatar for flouting Saudi ambitions. A year on, the blockade shows no signs of ending. The Saudis continue to make mischief, hinting they might turn Qatar into an island by digging a wide canal between the two countries, or suggesting that Qatar could lose the 2022 soccer world cup because it (out?)bribed other contenders.
For the blockaders, though, the reality is they’ve helped both Qatar’s economic diversification and an improvement in its woeful human rights record. If Qataris are troubled by what amounts to a family spat between very rich relatives it doesn’t show.
Doha’s English-language newspapers evinced a spirit of Churchillian doggedness. The Twitterati, according to the Qatar Tribune, hailed Qatar’s resilience in seeing off a conspiracy aimed at usurping its wealth, compromising its sovereignty and denying it the right to host the 2022 World Cup. The Gulf Times, published by a former deputy prime minister and head of the royal court, commented that the blockaders had tried every trick in the book, “threats, abuse, vitriol, bullying, fake news, unfounded charges, propaganda …even black magic [and] failed miserably in their actions”.
Not surprisingly in a highly authoritarian state, Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, gets most of the credit for all this. His dashing Omar Sharif-like image accompanied by the slogan, Tamim the Glorious, appears everywhere—on cars, trucks and buses, on buildings, constructions sites, shops, restaurant, T-shirts and posters.
Being in charge of the world’s richest country has been a big help. Qatar’s abundance of natural gas and oil generates an average annual per capita income of around $170,000. That figure masks the great disparity between mega-rich Qataris, who make up only 15 per cent of a male-heavy population of 2.6 million, and the rest—mainly Indians, Nepalese, other Arabs, Filipinos, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, working in hotels, restaurants, transportation, tourism, construction and as domestic staff. Tens of thousands labour on projects driven by the 2022 World Cup.
In the first months of the blockade, Qatar burned through some $50 billion to ensure supplies of basic commodities which arrived by air rather than the traditional land and sea routes from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. According to the International Monetary Fund, economic activity was affected but this was “mostly transitory and new trade routes were quickly established”, with the financial system remaining sound. The World Bank forecasts economic growth this year close to three per cent, compared to two per cent in 2017.
Ironically, the blockade prompted Qatar to become self-sufficient in milk products, essential for many of its foreign workers. A farm outside Doha, established in 2013 to rear sheep, has been transformed into a major dairy. By the end of 2018 it may have as many as 20,000 cows, landed by air and sea from around the globe, including Australia. As well as daily necessities the cows provide fun for headline writers, witness “Milk Sheikhs” or “Land of Milk and Money” though I’m still waiting for “Blockade an Udder Failure”.
FIFA’s 2011 selection of Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, for which Australia competed and managed just one vote, remains stained by accusations of serious bribery and, at least until recently, the degrading and dangerous conditions for foreign workers on the eight massive stadiums in or near Doha and a state-of-the-art road and rail network which will link them.
In 2013, the former ACTU President and current General Secretary of the International Confederation of Trade Unions, Sharan Burrow, described the workers as “basically slaves”, adding that if two years on from the awarding of the cup the Qatari Government had not done the fundamentals it had “no commitment to human rights”. Such criticism, and the risk of losing the cup, finally stung Qatari officials into action. In late 2017 the Qatari government guaranteed these workers a minimum annual wage of about $3,200.
Ms Burrow said earlier this year she had no doubt that Qatar was now committed to reform and was on its way to becoming a model for other Gulf States. The end of the “kafala” system, which gives sponsors great power, would she said, “free two million migrant workers” and promote “a mature industrial relations structure”. In late April, the International Labor Organisation opened an office in Doha to oversee the changes.
Qatar was hardly a household name in soccer circles until its controversial selection, though Qatar Sports Investment’s 2011 purchase of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) made that club the richest in the world. PSG demonstrated the benefit of a wealthy Gulf connection in 2017 when it bought the services of Brazilian super-star, Neymar, for a mere $340 million.
If money talks, the amount Qatar is spending on the World Cup positively screams. Currently it’s about $660 million a week, with the final tally expected at more than $260 billion. That should buy a fair degree of comfort for the anticipated 1 million plus fans who’ll make the journey, though those expecting to rub shoulders with Qataris may be disappointed. The only ones they’re certain to encounter are immigration and customs officials, the latter courteously relieving them of any alcohol they’re carrying. (I speak from personal experience!)
Islamic Qatar is seriously dry, with a strict ban on public consumption of alcohol and a very dim view of public drunkenness. This does not seem a natural fit with soccer fans. With Budweiser a World Cup sponsor it’s no surprise that senior FIFA officials declared that alcoholic drinks are part of the cup and “we're going to have them”. Falling into line, as Brazil was forced to do for the 2014 cup, Qatar will temporarily allow soccer fans to buy and drink beer at the stadiums. (Some of which will be dismantled after the cup and shipped to poor soccer-playing countries.)
Still, fans shouldn’t relax too much. Homosexuality remains illegal, and punishable by death if the offenders happen to be Muslim men (though Qatar has not executed anyone since 2003). Disgraced former FIFA President Sepp Blatter advised homosexual soccer fans to visit Qatar in 2022 “only for the football”. Understandably, that comment didn’t go over well with gay right activists, but he may have had a point.
First published by Pearls and Irritations, 28 June 2018
As millions around the globe contemplated New Year resolutions on 31 December 2017, Israel’s ruling Likud party came up with one of its own. Its Central Committee overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution seeking to extend Israel’s legal jurisdiction to its settlements in the West Bank, home to some 400,000 Israelis. Noting the 50th anniversary of the “liberation” of the West Bank, the resolution called on Likud’s elected officials “to allow free construction and to apply the laws of Israel and its sovereignty to all liberated areas of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria”.
Like New Year resolutions elsewhere, Likud’s was non-binding. This, and its timing, possibly explains why it attracted little media attention. But it may prove an important marker in the burial of the two-state solution. Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the US Council on Foreign Relations that the resolution had “significant consequences” as “a prelude to annexation”.
In the government halls that matter most in Israeli and Palestinian affairs—Jerusalem and Washington—the resolution captured the spirit of the time. Prime Minister Netanyahu is at his most credible when he any possibility of a Palestinian state. His Education Minister Naftali Bennett, one of two Jewish Home party representatives in the current Knesset, lauded Trump’s 2016 electoral victory as a for Israel, signalling “the era of the Palestinian state is over”. The two-state solution, he told a gathering of Jewish students in New York in March 2018, was a terrible idea which “.” Citing the example of Israel’s annexation in 1981 of the Golan Heights, Bennett spoke of the benefits of international amnesia. “It’s never pleasant two weeks after, but after two months it fades away, and 20 years later and 40 years later it’s still ours.”
Early in his presidency, President Trump gestured towards an open mind, , “I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like”. The idea that “both” parties could possibly agree on what they like was fanciful. In any event, Trump’s subsequent actions made clear that the US was not interested in using its clout to help the parties find a way through the maze of claim, counter claim and mutual acrimony. Trump and those around him have made the US a partisan player as never before. His former adviser on Israeli affairs, now ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is an unabashed supporter of “ of the West Bank, has been President of a fund-raising organisation for the West Bank settlement of Beit El, and reportedly backed Netanyahu’s ludicrous that opposition to settlements amounts to “ethnic cleansing”.
Writing in The Atlantic in May 2018, the Israeli author, Yossi Klein Halevi, described Israelis and Palestinians as caught in a . “The Palestinian national movement denies Israel’s legitimacy, and Israel in turn denies the Palestinians’ national sovereignty.” The latter “sovereignty” is greatly weakened by the schism between the feeble Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and the Islamist Hamas in Gaza. For Israel, it is the gift that keeps on giving.
Of the parties most closely entwined in the conflict, the PA has the strongest interest in a two-state solution and the least capacity to do anything about it. It governs fully in less than a quarter of the West Bank which, under the Oslo Agreements of the early 1990s, remains divided into Areas A, B and C. The PA has full control of Area A, about 18 per cent of the whole territory. Israel has full control of C, about 60 per cent. B, the remainder, is divided between Palestinian civil control and shared security control.
The terminal problem for two-staters is what to build the state with. Israeli settlement has so sliced and diced the West Bank it’s hard to imagine how the geographic shards might meaningfully be gathered together. US Ambassador Friedman has that settlements occupy only two per cent of the West Bank. If true, that would make settlements easier to remove but it completely overlooks their administrative reach. A Human Rights Organisation B’Tselem in late 2017 calculated that the settlements and their governing “regional councils” directly controlled 63 per cent of Area C and 40 per cent of the West Bank overall. by the Israeli
Besides the West Bank’s geographic fragmentation, there’s the open sore of the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas. In its revised Hamas hinted for the first time in 2017 that it might accept “a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital, along the lines of the 4th of June 1967”. This amounts to a two-state solution, if not one Israel would accept. The charter also described armed resistance as the “strategic choice for protecting the principles and the rights of the Palestinian people”. This points backwards. Israel has long declared it will not negotiate if under fire; Palestinians retort that Israel will not negotiate unless it’s under fire.
A week after the Likud Central Committee’s New Year resolution, Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, now at Princeton University, that Israelis and Palestinians were careening towards a one state reality, which “carries extremely dangerous risks”.
These risks hark back to Israel’s decades-old ““ of deciding what it wants to be: Jewish; an occupier; a democracy. It can’t be all three. The two-state solution was premised on the idea of ending the occupation, thereby preserving both Israel’s Jewish identity and its democratic ways. Former Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, in mid-2017 that if Israel kept control of the area from the Mediterranean to the river Jordan "it would become inevitably – that's the key word, inevitably – either non-Jewish or non-democratic". If Palestinians in an annexed West Bank were given full rights Israel would quickly become “a binational state with an Arab majority and civil war”. Israel's current path he described as a “slippery slope toward apartheid”.
Demography has long been a pressure point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat once the “the womb of the Arab woman” as his “strongest weapon”. But population figures—totals and growth rates—are sharply contested (see, for example, and ). According to the CIA’s World Fact Book, in 2017 there were 8.3 million people in Israel, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, of which 74.7 per cent were Jewish. The West Bank’s population was 2.75 million, which included 391,000 Israeli settlers. Gaza’s population was 1.8 million. Rounded, this produces a total Jewish population of 6.59 million and a non-Jewish, primarily Muslim Palestinian, population of 6.25 million, a 51:49 per cent split. Take Gaza out and the split firms in Israel’s favour 60:40. While Israel has always had a significant non-Jewish minority, the larger this minority the weaker the country’s sense of identity and the more complicated its internal politics.
One “solution” to the demographic dilemma involves the claim that “Jordan is Palestine”, given its high proportion of citizens of Palestinian descent. “Relocate” Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan, so the argument runs, and they’ll have their state and Israel will have demographic and identity comfort. Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, also from the Jewish Home party, last February her plan for Israeli law to apply in Area C of the West Bank while Areas A and B would “be part of a confederation, with Jordan and Gaza”. She rightly acknowledged this might seem “a bizarre option to the international community, but … in three years from now the international community will understand this is the right solution”.
To many of us, the “right” solution has long been two states for two peoples, reached through their own negotiations, supported and encouraged by others. That has not happened, and there’s no reason to believe it will. Sputtering efforts at negotiations over the past 20 years or so kept the “peace process” on life support. They also made it increasingly clear that the two-state solution is dead, overwhelmed by the weight of the past, myopia, ignorance, inhumanity, indifference, deceit, fanaticism, miscalculation; it’s a long charge sheet. The solution will not be rescued by a change of political leadership in Jerusalem or Washington, though we might see more subtle funeral directors.
Despite the recent flareups on the Israeli-Gaza border a new Palestinian does not seem imminent. A new round of stalemate does. This may well blur the issues that governments around the globe, including the 140 or so who officially recognise a non-existent “State of Palestine”, will eventually be forced to consider. These comprise (at least): the prospect of Israeli annexations and forced relocations; a Palestinian statelet in the West Bank; an Islamist de facto state in Gaza which offers its citizens little more than rhetoric. That may sound not much different to present-day reality. But governments to date have been able to chant the two-state mantra to avoid having to think anew. To continue in that vein will peddle false hope at best and, at worst, amount to calculated deceit.
First published by The Strategist (Australian Strategic Policy Institute), 16 June 2018