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Monday, February 27, 2006

Homosexuality: State of the World chart

Stumbled onto this interesting chart from Wikipedia showing legality of homosexuality and same sex marriages round the world.  It shows that, apart from Singapore and Malaysia, countries where homosexuality are illegal tend to be the poorest, most backward, Islamic and dictatorial ones.  Rich and developed countries tend to be the most accepting. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Mr Rajaratnam 1917-2006

Went to the Parliament House after work on Friday to pay respect to this great man.  Is this the passing of an era?  I remember reading his debates with the Communist Bloc over Cambodia when I first began reading the papers in the 1980s.  A pity he has become forgotten in the last decade or so.  May he rest in peace.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Where is Brokeback Mountain?

Where is Brokeback Mountain?
 
 
 
But Ang Lee said everyone has a Brokeback Mountain in them...
 

Thoughts about Brokeback Mountain

Just watched Brokeback Mountain.  Quite moving... the feeling just seeped in and caught hold of me.  Some tears...especially when they quarrelled over Jack's fling in Mexico, and the second last scene when Ennis saw the clothes at Jack's place.  Even at death, gay people can't be buried where they want to.  Even their partners have to grieve in closet. Hope this movie is a step towards a more progressive world.
 
 
 

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Bahrain: A Love Hotel in Dilmun

Bahrain: A Love Hotel in Dilmun
 
 
According to Enki and Ninhursaga, creation legend of the Mesopotamians who live in what is today Iraq, also the world's oldest civilisation:
 
The place is pure...
The land Dilmun is pure...
The land Dilmun is clean,
The land Dilmun is most bright…
That place is clean, that place is most bright.    
 
In Dilmun, the raven utters no cry,
The lion kills not,
The wolf snatches not the lamb,
Unknown is the kid-devouring wild dog,....
The sick eyed says not, "I am sick eyed"
The sick headed says not "I am sick headed",...
Dilmun's old woman says not "I am old,"
It's old man says not "I am old    
 
The Land of Dilmun, according to the Mesopotamians, is the sacred land of the gods, one that is pure, innocent and without evil, and where everyone – men and animals - lives for all eternity in peace and harmony.  This is the earthy paradise, and according to archaeologists, the original inspiration for the Garden of Eden.  The story of the Eden was adapted by the ancestors of the Hebrews and brought to the Land of Israel by Abraham and his tribe from their original home at the Mesopotamian city of Ur.  The story became part of the Jewish Torah and subsequently the Christian Bible and the Islamic Quran.
 
According to many archaeologists, Dilmun is today’s Bahrain, a small island state of 665 sq km and 700,000 people, right at the heart of the Gulf region of the Middle East.  The Kingdom of Bahrain, as it is officially known, is ruled by the Al Khalifa family, who have governed the island since 1783, with some interruptions. 
 
Bahrain was where oil was first drilled in the Gulf East, and after civil war broke out in Lebanon, the pre-eminent regional financial centre of the Middle East.  However, with other centres in the region opening up their banking sectors and further initiatives to cultivate offshore banking activities, Bahrain’s status has come under significant threat, particularly, from Dubai, the up and coming hub for anything that smells of money.  Bahrain, which has long regarded itself as a prosperous smart kid of the Gulf, now looks worn-out.
 
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I flew into Bahrain after a one-day stopover in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.  I got into a taxi for the 6km journey into town.  At 5 Bahraini Dinars (US$15) a ride – or at least that’s what I was quoted by the taxi driver – this is a rip off for such a short journey.  My hotel had told me that it should only cost 3 dinars but the taxi wouldn’t move for less than 5.  So Bahrain has certainly failed my taxi test (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/twc-nomad/message/284 ) - visitors here are at the mercy of unscrupulous taxi drivers.  Yet another country with some hardware but little software to match.
 
The following Friday would be National Day and there were banners and public decorations along the road.  Huge billboards stood at intervals of 10 meters or less along the main coastal boulevard, all of them with the three members of the Bahraini royal trinity in various postures – King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifah, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, and Prime Minister since 1970, Khalifa ibn Sulman Al Khalifa, who is also uncle of the King. 
 
According to Wikipedia, the Prime Minister is “one of the longest-serving heads of government in the world; also known to be the richest member of the ruling family and one of the biggest merchants in Bahrain. He is also generally viewed as the most corrupt member of the royal family and opposed to King Hamad's democratic reforms.”  According to Le Monde diplomatique, after two pension funds under government management went bankrupt in April 2003, the Government donated US$45m and several plots of land in the capital to the two funds, so as to counter any risk of the personal implication of the Prime Minister.
 
Whatever it is, these highway billboards reminded me more of the self-congratulatory posters of Third World regimes than that of an international financial centre.  They also made me wonder, whether the country was celebrating its national day or its royalty.
 
Bahrain is a country ruled by a minority ruling class.  Over 70% of its population are Shiite Muslims many of whom have Iranian roots, but ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa clan who invaded the island from the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century.  Since independence, there have been allegations that the Bahraini state distrusts and discriminates against Shiites, and the latter were excluded from many jobs.  With the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Bahraini government has been suspicious of the loyalty of its Shiite subjects.  During the last decade, riots and bomb explosions have occurred, upsetting the semblance of political stability in this country.
 
King Hamad succeeded his father as Emir in 1999 and declared the country a constitutional monarchy in 2002 following a referendum on constitutional reforms that also granted women the right to vote.  Accordingly, the State of Bahrain became Kingdom of Bahrain, and the Emir the King.  What’s the difference between a king and an emir?  Semantics perhaps, to the critics of the Bahraini monarchy.  The Shiites still complain about discrimination and the many thousands of Sunni Syrians and Saudi Bedouins who have been given citizenship to dilute the Shiite composition of the national population.
 
Some of Bahrain’s larger neighbours in the Gulf are sarcastic about the newly proclaimed royal title.  After all, he was previously a Sheikh who was an Emir.  In the Arabic language, a sheikh refers literally to an old man, a term which has come to be used for a leader, elder, noble, tribal leader or even wealthy businessmen.  The website of the opposition Bahrain Freedom Movement (www.vob.org ) refers to the King as a Sheikh, even though he had been a king for four years.  The emir is certainly a much more dignified term but common enough in the Muslim world.  It is a title reserved for leaders and military commanders. 
 
In some ways, this is a term appropriate for rulers of the Gulf States.  Historically, these were poor lands with tiny nomadic populations, hardly within the control of sultans and kings (malik in Arabic) which tended to be rulers of larger polities.  Instead the Gulf were the realms of nomadic tribes, roving military contingents commanded by military leaders, hence the term emir. 
 
Even in this constitutional monarchy, the prime minister remains a political appointee and a member of the royal family.  The long serving (36 years!) Prime Minister is the uncle of the King, which underlines his political power over the state.  If you have watched Chinese historical drama serials on palace intrigue involving the complex power network of old imperial China, you could almost guess how inherently unstable such royal structures are. 
 
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I wanted to go to Seef Hotel but the taxi driver tried his best to get me to go elsewhere.  Travellers are normally apprehensive of such schemes, where the traveller eventually gets charged more for a worse hotel and the taxi driver getting a neat commission at the traveller’s expense.  I insisted on Seef and was brought to this faded outfit in the centre of Manama, Bahrain’s capital. 
 
Worn-out, mouldy furniture within the plain walls, Seef Hotel is run by expat Indians from Kerala who on that occasion seemed more concerned with following a Bollywood movie on TV than speaking to me.  At 10 dinars (US$35), this is one of the cheapest deals in town.  The TV comes with CNN and HBO, not a bad deal though not a must-have for me. 
 
Five skimpily dressed Thai girls with partially see-through dress and thick make-up at the staircase, one of whom was chatting in English to a middle age Saudi in white robes.  Thought I heard some numbers mentioned – price negotiations, I suppose. Another of her friends, a sweet roundish face with watery eyes, her hair dyed brown, smiled at me.  A working girl probably from Thailand’s poverty-stricken Northeast, here to repay gambling debts of her father or a husband or a boyfriend…whatever.  Despite the religious rhetoric and self-righteous, moralistic overtones of the official press, one do not have to look too far beneath the surface to find the world’s most ancient trade across the Middle East.  Man, wherever they are, are often motivated by hormones after all.
 
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In Dilmun, that original Garden of Eden, the Land of Purity and Innocence, Enki, the God of Sweet Waters and Wisdom, brought the water of life, fertility and plants to the world, in an ancient Mesopotamian creation legend that would be condemned by the modern day man as one of serial incest, underage sex and scandalous debauchery.
 
Dilmun lacked water; its goddess invited Enki who ordered the Sun God to bring fresh water here.  In Dilmun, Enki met Ninhursaga, the Mother Earth, who fell in love and was impregnated by him.  Nine days later, Ninhursaga gave birth to a daughter Ninsar, who is then impregnated by her father.  Nine days later, Ninsar gave birth to a daughter Ninkur, who is also impregnated by promiscuous Enki, the result of which was Uttu, the goddess of plants.  Oversexed Enki then seduced his great-granddaughter who had been warned by Ninhursaga to avoid the lusty Enki.  As a result, Uttu gave birth to eight different sacred plants. 
 
Greedy Enki ate all the sacred plants in an act that could only be described as vegetarian-cannibalism, was as a result cursed by angry Ninhursaga, and suffering in great pain with a hugely bloated stomach.   The gods pleaded Ninhursaga to forgive Enki, for if Enki, who command the water of life, dies, all in the world would collapse.  Ninhursaga relented, and ended Enki’s sufferings in a process that led to the birth of eight goddesses each born from a different part of Enki’s body – including Ki, the Goddess of Life from one of Enki’s rib bones. 
 
Was Ki the original Eve, born from Adam’s rib?  So much from the Garden of Eden and the loss of innocence.
 
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Manama, or “Sleeping Place” in Arabic, is the capital of Bahrain.  Indeed a sleepy place when compared to Dubai, though livelier than Kuwait City and definitely more so than Doha.  There are few state-of-the-art skyscrapers unlike Dubai or Doha; it is a city of 1960s and 1970s old fashioned shopping centres and fading office blocks like those one finds in Birmingham and Gibraltar – quaint but perhaps of growing irrelevance. 
 
A stale air of stagnancy overwhelmed despite the lights of the (not surprising) South Asian-dominated souq and sleazy night spots whose main patrons were Saudis who drove here across a 25 km-bridge to drink, dance and have wild abundant sex, pursuits they are denied in their own socially repressed country but for which they are renowned for over-indulging when outside their country.  Well, better hedonistic pursuits in Bahrain than craving for the 72 black-eye virgins promised by extremist Mullahs to the Wahabbi martyr.  At the rate the world is experiencing martyr inflation, I wonder if there would be enough virgins in Heaven, or whether such a Heaven is any attractive for the virgin female.
 
Bahrain became the financial and business hub of the Middle East after Beirut plunged into civil war, but its predominance has been significantly eroded in recent years.  Financial services accounts for 24% of the GDP.  Bahrain remains the regional capital for Islamic banking and continue to benefit from the general benefits of the deluge of inflow of wealth arising from the huge rise in oil prices, but there is evidence to suggest that major international banks such as Morgan Stanley, HSBC and Merrill Lynch are now moving staff and funds to Dubai’s new Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) which has its own English-Law based legal jurisdictions and emphasis on investment banking, capital markets and fund management. 
 
Bahrain is fighting back with the US$1.3 billion Bahrain Financial Harbour (BFH), a massive group of office towers cum leisure and tourism complexes like ancient Mesopotamian ziggurats rising as high as 173 meters already standing along the coastal road, with dhow like architectural designs that combine traditional Gulf and contemporary features. 
 
New laws are enacted that allow foreign ownership in newly reclaimed land – sounds like what some observers call “increasing Dubaism” – copying of Dubai’s ambitious spend-and-build strategy to build whole new industries and know-how, and yet a kind of affirmation of the lead Dubai has over its regional rivals.  But behold – it’s easier to built towers than to fill them up.
 
Will Bahrain succeed?  The country faces long-term decline in petroleum and related industries, which currently account about 60% of export earnings and government revenues.  It is trying to diversify its economy with mixed success.  For the moment, Bahrain has the fastest growing economy in the Arab world and the freest economy in the Middle East according to the Heritage Foundation. 
 
However, Bahrain, beset with its political issues, can hardly be attractive as a sanctuary for the estimated US$1.8 trillion private money in the Middle East, 45% of which is held outside the region.  Since 9/11, many wealthy Arabs are apprehensive that their wealth may get trapped abroad if another international crisis erupts, or if anti-terrorist funding rules get applied to their funds without exclusion.  Perhaps, Bahrain will still be able to get a slice of this in the short-term, but it will have to try harder to retain that for the longer term.
 
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Nightclubs with loud Arabesque-Turkish disco beat, a strange Jamaican restaurant, into the maze, friendly, old-fashioned convenience shops with signs proclaiming “Cold Store”, colours and spices of the Indian souq.  Suddenly I found myself right at the heart of a Shiite neighbourhood.  Three Chinese traders were showing local traders the garment made in the sweatshops of Zhejiang, Eastern China.  Loud prayers call sounded amidst houses with portraits and paintings of modern-day Ayatollahs and revered Shiite saints, such as Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet and fourth leader of the Muslims, and his family members, all considered martyrs of Shia Islam in its terrible civil war with the Sunnis in the early 8th century.  Even today, the intense rivalry and conflict between the Shiite and Sunni Muslims are only exceeded by that between Muslims and the Jews. 
 
Considering the current controversy over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, one may be inclined to think that human images are not allowed at all in Islam.  Just go to any Shiite community and one would see portraits of Shiite martyrs.  Can anyone explain to me why?  Sometimes it’s all a matter of politics and unscrupulous politicians who use any opportunity to further their own fortunes. 
 
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Among the Gulf States, Bahrain must be the most liberal one.  With a longer history of indigenous industrialisation where locals have been involved in the oil industry, as well as a longer international presence, Bahrainis are more enlightened than many Arab states when it comes to woman’s rights.  Unlike many Arab states, there are hardly any religious police aka gangsters going around arresting people for breaking ridiculous fundamentalist rules. 
 
I have seen many unveiled women in Bahrain, unlike in many traditional Gulf States where women are little better than slaves owned by their husbands, fathers or brothers.  In Bahrain, women are allowed to vote and there are more female university graduates than male ones.  Unlike in Saudi Arabia, woman in Bahrain can drive too.  The Bahraini Chamber of Commerce and Industry even has a woman member.  Women are half the world; how can a society progress if women are treated like men’s property as in many Arab states?
 
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Michael Jackson might have lost his magic in the US since being acquitted from the child-abuse case, but Bahrain seemed to have become his new homeland.  This was where the superstar flew after his pyrrhic trial victory, and where soon after my visit he was spotted with his children at a local shopping mall in an Arab woman's abaya robe, gloves and veil.  His children wore yellow shirts and sweatpants, and had their faces wrapped in black scarves.  In November 2005, he was spotted in a lady's toilet in a Dubai mall, putting on makeup.  Welcome to the Gulf of the Superstar, or perhaps half-fallen ones too. 
 
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According to the oldest epic ever written by humankind, Gilgamesh of the Babylonians which were found on 7th century BC clay tablets in the collection of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, Dilmun was the Land of Immortality - the home and playground of the Gods - the spot where Sun rose every day, where Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, went in search for eternal youth after seeing the death of his dear companion.  After great effort and overcoming many obstacles, Gilgamesh found the boatman Urshanabi who ironically had orders never to take anyone to Dilmun.  Nevertheless, Gilgamesh had his way and met Utnapishtim, the immortal king of Shurrupak, at Dilmun. 
 
Utnapishtim told him about how the Great Flood came and destroyed all mankind because they were too numerous and noisy, and have disturbed the sleep of the God Enlil.  Utnapishtim learned about the impending disaster, built a boat and invited all into his boat.  Together with his wife and all those on his boat, Utnapishtim survived the Great Flood which covered all lands except the highest mountain.    For his deed, Utnapishtim and his wife were granted immortality but confined to remote Dilmun.
 
Utnapishtim then told Gilgamesh that he could be given immortality if he could stay awake for seven days in a roll.  Gilgamesh, unfortunately, failed the test, though he thought that he had only slept for half a second; He had actually slept for seven, as evidenced by a decayed loaf of bread. 
 
Utnapishtim gave Gilgamesh a second chance: He told Gilgamesh about the Flower of Eternal Life that grew at the seabed of Dilmun, that could make him immortal too.  Gilgamesh dived into the sea, found the plant, and just as he rejoiced and bathed in a well, a serpent ate the flower and disappeared.   Thus the rebirth of the snake every time it sheds its skin.
 
Gilgamesh was devastated:
 
For whom have I laboured? For whom have I journeyed?
For whom have I suffered?
I have gained absolutely nothing for myself,
I have only profited the snake, the ground lion!
  
Gilgamesh was resigned to the inevitability of death and returned to Uruk, where he gawked at the great walls and monumental gates.  Here he exclaimed at the greatness of the city and the enduring achievement of Man, mortal he might be, and that it was only through civilisation and culture that Man could achieve eternal fame.
 
Does this ring a bell?  Twist the oldest pagan creation legend in the world and you get the Old Testament.  So much for intellectual property rights.
 
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I walked across town to the National Museum.  An enormous complex with stylistic dhows and half columns symbolising the nation's maritime heritage.  Here I was treated to an excellent display of artefacts on Bahrain's ancient heritage.  The gems of the museum were the assorted iron pieces, carvings, beads and skeletons from excavations around the more than 170,000 mysterious burial mounds of ancient Dilmun, dating back to 3000 B.C. 
 
Bahrain is the greatest prehistoric cemetery in the world.  Each of the mounds has a chamber in which a person is buried in the foetal position.  Even today, these strange mud mounds are scattered among the tin-roofed houses of Bahrain's central villages, like skin pores under the microscopes.  Pictures taken from the skies showed mound plains that looked surreal, almost out of this world.  Creation of visitors from outer space? 
 
An ancient sacred site and burial site for prehistoric Arabians where immortality could be obtained, so thought many who passed by Bahrain.  How could a small arid island support such a big population?  Was Bahrain the island of the dead?
 
In 1954, however, this theory was overthrown by the Danish archaeological expedition led by Geoffrey Bibby.  Through digs at the 16th century Portuguese built Bahrain Fort and a temple site to the west, as well as drawing a link to the ancient Mesopotamian legend, Gilgamesh, he found evidence supporting a new theory, that Bahrain was Dilmun. 
 
It was in ancient Bahrain where Mesopotamians traded with people from the Indus Valley in what is today Pakistan and western India.  This was the centre of an ancient empire that ruled over what are today the Gulf States.  Dilmun was also an important religious centre, the place where the cult of immortality was worshipped.  In many tombs, skeletons of snakes were found in funerary jars – offerings to the gods, and a reminder to the legend of the snake that stole the plant of immortality from Gilgamesh.
 
In the museum is a special exhibit that celebrated those Danish archaeological expeditions which discovered the link between modern Bahrain and ancient Dilmun.  It was they who told the world that Bahrain was richer in history than in oil.  As I am writing now in the greatest and perhaps the only major anti-Danish fever in world history, I wonder whether the exhibit would survive it all.  Until recent weeks, it was almost unthinkable that anyone would ever be upset with the Danes.  But history has a way of making fun of Mankind, whose capacity to mess things up seems boundless.
 
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A guy at the General Post Office told me that the Ministry of Transport has a department selling stamps for collectors.  I went there late morning and yet was told that it wasn’t opened.  Yet no one could tell me when it was supposed to reopen or what exactly were its operating hours.  What a surprise for a government agency, unimportant it might have been, in a place that considers itself an international financial centre.  "Savage" was to be the over-strong response of the GPO officer when I recounted this later.
 
I tried to wave a taxi back to my hotel not more than 3 kilometres away from the Ministry.  Yet passing taxis – yes, all without meters – asked for the leg and arm.  One of the taxis almost ran over my leg when I rejected its cut-throat demand for 3 dinars (US$8).  Third World service and attitude, First World prices.
 
I am reminded of the declining fortunes of Gulf Air, once the national airline of Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi (the richest of the member-states of the United Arab Emirates) and Oman, now only supported by Bahrain and Oman.  Gulf Air used to be the airline of choice in the Middle East.  Since the appearance of Dubai’s Emirates which has used its non-threatening startup status to negotiate the most advantageous air traffic rights in its early days, Dubai has been propelled into the status of a regional air hub with Emirates as a premier world-class carrier. 
 
Gulf Air, however, was stuck in a never-ending tug-of-war of trying to be the national airline of four sometime-quarrelling rival states, with four different hubs to contend with.  Ultimately, it is the Emirates that triumphs.  Since then, Qatar has established its own airline (Qatar Airways) and pulled out of Gulf Air in 2002.  Abu Dhabi set up Etihad Airways and got out in 2005.  How long will Oman hang on to Gulf Air given that it has Oman Air? 
 
Both Qatar and Abu Dhabi are pumping their petrol-dollars to build world-class airlines from scratch.  Poor Bahrain is running out of oil and can only manage over-leveraged Gulf Air for cash.  Budget airlines have appeared in Sharjah and Kuwait, hitting Gulf Air hard as well.  With Dubai as a tourism and business destination in its own right, there are even fewer reasons for intercontinental travellers to transit in Bahrain. 
 
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I negotiated for a taxi to bring me 5km away to Qalat al-Bahrain, also known as Bahrain Fort, and back to Manama.  Eight dinars (US$21) for a return trip.  Another outrageously expensive venture.  I bet the local gets charged a lot less.  One never feels comfortable about taxis without meters.  Especially financial centres that have no metered taxis.  Whether or not the rate is fair, one inevitably smells a rat.
 
The fort was located on a tall artificial hill built over by multiple constructions over many millennia since the days of ancient Dilmun.  The World Heritage Site was monumental, yet with its temperament toned by the green shady palms around it.  This used to be the palace of Dilmun, excavated by  the archaeologist Bibby.  The Greeks came, followed by the Romans, the Arabs and the Portuguese.  Each built their fortress after razing the previous one.  One layer upon another layer.  This is the archaeologist's Wonderland, a thick treasure trove of data from one era upon that of another era.
 
The Portuguese, who came in the wake of Vasco da Gama's voyages from Europe to India, built the fortress we see today.  As the Portuguese sailed through the Indian Ocean, they clashed with local Muslim kingdoms and set up fortresses in the most strategic areas.  According to Wikipedia, "In 1521, a Portuguese force led by commander Antonio Correia invaded Bahrain to take control of the wealth created by its pearl industry. The defeated King Muqrin was beheaded after Correia defeated his forces near present day Karbabad and took control of the fort Qala'at Al-Bahrain. The bleeding head of King Muqrin was later depicted on the Coat of Arms of Antonio Correia."
 
The Portuguese ruled Bahrain as well as most of the coastal ports of the Gulf with great brutality, crushing any form of dissent ruthlessly.  But how could a small country in Europe, with barely a few million inhabitants, control a vast maritime empire for too long?  Once the other European nations learned acquired the technology of long-range ocean travel, the Portuguese trade monopoly was challenged. As increased resources were spent in battles not only with other great powers in East and West, Portuguese supremacy over the conquered lands was depleted with time.  In 1602, an uprising in Bahrain drove them out.
 
I stood by the side of the deep moat, and marvelled at the massive walls and bulwark of the Portuguese fortifications.  At the bottom of the moat were foundations and remains of the Dilmun civilisation uncovered by archaeological excavations of the past few decades.  I would have loved to explore the fortress itself, but it was not opened on a day it was supposed to be.  A pity, but was this the first time I caught civil servants here skiving off?
 
I walked to the seaward side of the fortress, standing by the hill overlooking the Arabian Gulf.  One could see the foundations of the old Islamic fortress and beyond that the sea.  Whereas the Portuguese fleet once moored here with valuable spices from Melaka and the Indonesian archipelago to the East, Bahrain has now become home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet, and a major base for US military operations during the Gulf Wars. 
 
Small nations like Bahrain and Singapore are often vulnerable to regional intrigue.  Like Singapore which also hosts an American base, Bahrain's flirtations with the US are also linked to domestic security considerations.  Bahrain had long standing territorial disputes with Saudi Arabia and Qatar which were only resolved in recent years, not to mention its own domestic political issues.  The presence of the US Navy is deterrence to those who want to upset the status quo, be it the Shiites or Iran.  Is the past any different from the present?  Will the future be any different from the past?
 
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I came across the story of a Bahraini princess and a US Marine.  Beautiful princess, 19, met handsome Mormon Marine boy, 23, stationed in Bahrain.  They fell in love.  The parents opposed.  The couple eloped, with the princess disguised as a man, on with a New York Yankees ball cap and forged military identification, and off they went to Las Vegas.  The princess was denounced by her family, while the Marine was demoted and then discharged from service. 
 
Material for a Disney fairytale?  Yes, they made it to the headlines and an appearance on "Oprah".  But life in the Real, Bad World took a toll on their marriage.  The ex-Marine had to live as a valet parker and the princess got onto a party lifestyle on the Strip.  Personal, religious and cultural differences came to a clash, and five years after it all began, the couple divorced.  End of fairy tale, even before it really began.
 
Coming from a very small country, the fate of small countries has always intrigued me.  I can't help but think about where Singapore would be in the complex world we live in today.  I left Bahrain wondering about the stories of Gilgamesh and Dilmun, and the decay, stagnancy and lack of "software" despite higher aspirations.  The fairy tale certainly hasn't ended - Bahrain remains a well-off state, though sparkling Dubai and Doha makes Bahrain looks tired.
 
With that, I set off for Doha, capital of Qatar.
 
 
 
 

Human Rights Campaign

Interesting site: Food for thought with Brokeback Mountain. 
 
Happy Valentine's Day from the Human Rights Campaign

Love Matters - http://www.hrc.org/

Sunday, February 12, 2006

UN to monitor independence vote in tiny Tokelau

UN to monitor independence vote in tiny Tokelau
 
08.02.06 4.00pm
 
UN election experts are headed to tiny Tokelau, a New Zealand protectorate in the South Pacific, to observe its referendum on self-government beginning later this week, the United Nations said today.

The team of four UN aides is traveling to the territory, which occupies three small atolls and has a population of 1500, at the request of New Zealand, which has administered Tokelau since 1926, UN chief spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The referendum is to unroll over a five-day period, beginning February 11 in Apia, Samoa, for Tokelauans living in Samoa. Tokelau is located about 500km north of Samoa.

Eligible voters on the atolls of Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo can cast their ballots starting next Monday and ending the following Wednesday.

Tokelau is one of 16 non-self-governing territories left on the UN decolonisation list, including Gibraltar, Western Sahara and Guam.

At the time the United Nations was established in 1945, there were 72 such territories. The last one to exercise its right to self-determination was East Timor, which gained independence from Indonesia in 2002.

- REUTERS

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Interesting Coincidence

This was forwarded to me.  Bizarre coincidence?

1) New York City has 11 letters.

2) Afghanistan has 11 letters.

3) Ramsin Yuseb (The terrorist who threatened to
destroy the Twin
Towers in 1993) has 11 letters.

4) George W Bush has 11 letters.

This could be a mere coincidence, but this gets
more interesting:

1) New York is the 11th state.

2) The first plane crashing against the Twin
Towers
was flight number
11.

3) Flight 11 was carrying 92 passengers. 9 + 2 =
11

4) Flight 77 which also hit Twin Towers, was
carrying 65 passengers.
6+5 = 11

5) The tragedy was on September 11, or 9/11 as it
is now known. 9 + 1+ 1 = 11

6) The date is equal to the US emergency services
telephone number
911. 9 + 1 + 1 = 11.

Sheer coincidence..?! Read on and make up your
own mind:

1) The total number of victims inside all the hi-
jacked planes was
254. 2 + 5 + 4 = 11.

2) September 11 is day number 254 of the
calendar year. Again 2 + 5 + 4
= 11.

3) The Madrid bombing took place on 3/11/2004. 3
+ 1 + 1 + 2 + 4 = 11.

4) The tragedy of Madrid happened 911 days after
the Twin Towers
incident.

Now this is where things get totally eerie:

The most recognised symbol for the US, after the
Stars & Stripes, is
the Eagle. The following verse is taken from the
Quran, the Islamic
holy book:

"For it is written that a son of Arabia would
awaken
a fearsome Eagle.
The wrath of the Eagle would be felt throughout
the
lands of Allah and lo,
while some of the people trembled in despair still
more rejoiced: for
the wrath of the Eagle cleansed the lands of Allah
and there was
peace."

That verse is number 9.11 of the Quran.

Still uncovinced about all of this..?! Try this and
see how you feel
afterwards, it made my hair stand on end:

Open Microsoft Word and do the following:

1. Type in capitals Q33 NY. This is the flight
number of the first
plane to hit one of the Twin Towers.

2. Highlight the Q33 NY.

3. Change the font size to 48.

4. Change the actual font to the WINGDINGS

What do you think now?!!


--
Don't Think Too Much,
Take Things as They Come.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Kuwait: A Cybercaf� Called Diana

Here's the 1st instalment of my long overdue Gulf travelogue:
 
 
Kuwait: A Cybercafé Called Diana
 
Visa counter at Kuwait International Airport.  Kuwait used to be closed to international tourism, but it has recently followed the lead of Dubai in allowing citizens of well-off nations visas upon arrival.  However, that hasn't led to the tourism bonanza Dubai is enjoying.  Instead, apart from the odd businessmen in boring suits, the other ones at visa queues were fat, balding men in safari suits and burly, Halliburton-types in loud t-shirts with slogans like "Liberators of Iraq" and "USA - Land of the Free" - "contractors" and mercenaries on transit to Iraq.
 
Getting a Kuwaiti visa for Singaporeans is easy enough.  After all, our nationals are unlikely to sneak into Kuwait in search of a construction worksite or housemaid job.  The Singapore Armed Forces participated in the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991 with a modest contribution of a medical contingent, and more recently, were members of the so-called "Coalition of the Willing" that followed US forces into Iraq.  In fact, a few Singapore gunboats are now patrolling the short Iraqi coast just miles north of here, as members of the "Coalition Forces".  Well, I have to say we are smart in getting into the good books of Uncle Sam without undertaking excessive risks.
 
A driver from Oasis Hotel picked me up and we sped northwards to Kuwait City along a multiple lane highway.  The Oasis Hotel is a typical three star business outfit in the heart of Kuwait City.  At 25 Kuwaiti Dinars or US$90 per night, Oasis Hotel was not exactly my idea of a budget hotel.  But well, Kuwait isn't the backpacker's paradise - be thankful that they have started allowing tourists.  Oasis Hotel was the cheapest I could find and book via the net. 
 
Nearby was Kuwait City's Souq, or Bazaar.  Here I entered the realm of South Asia.  Blasting Hindi music, plasma screens with hip-gyrating Bollywood nymphs and heroes, sarong of colours run wild, aroma of the most exotic Dravidian spices - welcome to Little Karachi, Mumbai or Dhaka for that matter. 
 
Kuwait, like the rest of the Gulf, is run by the South Asians.  With a small indigenous population who prefers to enjoy the richness of Allah's gift of the black gold, the Gulf states rely on the South Asians on most aspects of everyday life - Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to clean the streets, build their homes and palaces, change the diapers of their babies and to supply household goods and provisions.  Europeans run companies – the former colonials command greater respect from ex-colonial subjects worldwide who tend to look down on fellow ex-colonial subjects, a phenomena found anywhere from Casablanca to Beijing and Santiago - and the Filipinos and Thais, with their natural ability to serve with a smile, work in restaurants and hotels; but the South Asians do almost everything else.
 
The result being the South Asians as the largest population group in the tiny Gulf States - even more than the local Gulf Arabs in some of the Gulf States.  34% of Kuwait's population of 2.3 million are South Asians, about the same number as Kuwaiti Arabs.  Everywhere from Kuwait City to Abu Dhabi, one sees more Indians and Pakistanis than Arabs, and South Asian culture dominates public domain to a certain extent - be it Bollywood movies or Indian briyani. 
 
Remittances these South Asians made to their homelands are a major source of foreign exchange and a valuable funding for mosques, temples, schools and small businesses in many small towns across the subcontinent.  Many South Asians have lived in the Gulf for decades and yet most are not allowed to become citizens, unlike their cousins who emigrated to Europe, North America and Southeast Asia.
 
"Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.  Ash-hadu alla ilaha illa-llah".  The call for evening prayers overwhelmed the exuberant lights and sounds of Mother India as I left the Souq.  Walking along the avenues of the city centre, I couldn't help but be surprised with how run-down the surroundings were for the capital of an oil rich state.  There were more than a few potholes and many of the buildings were unpainted edifices which had probably seen better days in the 1970s and 1980s.  Unimpressive shops many of which were shuttered.  It certainly had more in common with Damascus than the legendary shiny space age Gulf.  But then, Damascus is a monumental historic city with 5000 years of history whereas there was hardly anything in Kuwait apart from a fortress and some palm trees a hundred years ago.
 
Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised.  After all, for more than a decade after its liberation from Iraq, Kuwait lived in fear of yet another Saddam Hussein adventure.  Which prudent businessman would dare invest here?  Perhaps investments would pick up again now that Saddam is gone.
 
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To me, taxis are a measure of how developed the country is or will be.  A country with taximeters and taxi drivers who abide by them indicates that country's willingness to do business on a fair basis with strangers who do not know the local rates.  It is easy to build world-class infrastructure - one just need hard cash - but to be able to convince one's citizens to do business in a proper manner requires software which takes time to cultivate. 
 
Kuwait City, despite its oil wealth, does not impose meters on taxis.  The foreigner has to bargain hard for a reasonable rate.  The same goes for Bahrain, Muscat, Moscow, Cairo and Nairobi.  Malaysian and Manila taxis are metered but most drivers would refuse to use the meter when a foreigner boards the taxi. Ironically, taxis in Chinese cities are metered and tend to stick with the meters, which indicates a desire to adapt international best practices. 
 
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I walked 5km to the Kuwait Towers, the iconic national landmark of Kuwait along the windswept seaside boulevards of Kuwait City, comprising of three towers two of which had bright greenish spheres containing drinking water.  Like fishballs stuck on kebab sticks.  I took the lift up one of the towers where apart from the wonderful view afforded of Kuwait City there were photos of the destruction caused by rampaging Iraqi soldiers when they invaded and occupied Kuwait for seven months.  Internal fittings were totally destroyed and the Iraqis blew up most of the glass walls and windows of the observation floor.  War is savage.  Invaders don't just want to take over lands.  They often destroy the cultural heart of occupied lands as well. 
 
On a clear day, one could see Falaika Island from the observation deck.  Known to the ancient Greeks as Ikarus, this was once a major port and Gateway to ancient Mesopotamia and Babylon.  Here, Nearchus, an admiral of Alexander the Great, established a Greek trading colony where goods of the Near East were exchanged for treasures from India. 
 
Not much remains of this ancient Greek port, except for a few columns and mounds, and even that suffered some damage during the Iraqi invasion.  The island, due to its strategic location off the coast of Kuwait City, was heavily fortified by Iraqi forces and was the scene of the first land assault of US Allied forces that liberated Kuwait.
 
A Kuwaiti couple - a handsome young man in his spotless flowing white robe and a white headscarf, and the lady in a black robe dress that covers her from head to toe called the abaya, with her face covered with a face mask only with her eyes revealed - were admiring the panorama from the deck as well.  I approached them, wanting to ask them to help snap a picture of myself.  The young man, seeing me and my camera, waved his arms before I could even speak, "No, no."  His lady, with her palm covering her mouth as if about to scream.  It was as though I was holding a pistol instead of a camera. 
 
"Oh, I just wondered if you could take a photo for me," I said.
 
"Yes, I see," the panic eased into a smile.  They must have seen me snapping around the observation floor and thought I was about to capture their images for some infidel pornographic exhibition.  In Islam, human images are deemed indecent if not forbidden by the most conservative Muslims, and it is an absolute no-no for decent women to be photographed, especially by a stranger.
 
After an international crisis was adverted, I strolled along the beautiful Corniche with its many palm trees, passing the flashy Souq Sharq mall which an Iraqi missile hit during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, a marina complex and a fish market.  Fishing boats spotting the green-white-black-red Kuwaiti flags moored by the quayside, fishermen unloading the catch of the day while others were repairing or cleaning the nets and lines.  These workers didn't look Kuwaiti though I couldn't quite place them either.  Perhaps Pakistanis who have rented the boats from Kuwaiti owners, so allowing them to fish under the Kuwaiti flag.  The catch looked good. 
 
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I visited the Dixon House, where the British Resident in Kuwait lived.  The British Resident was a British diplomat stationed in protectorates of the British Empire to advise the native rulers on key matters of state, especially foreign affairs.  Between 1899 and 1961, Kuwait was a British protectorate, i.e., a state which was under the control but not direct rule of the British Empire. 
 
Today, Dixon House is a mini museum devoted to Anglo-Kuwaiti relations and many old photos of what Kuwait used to be were displayed, together with photos of British and Kuwaiti royalty scratching each other’s back – figuratively of course. Like many non-European monarchies round the world, this museum boasts about how close the two royal families were.  Even though the British Empire no longer exists in its previous forms, the British royal family remains the most unilaterally proclaimed "best friends" of numerous other royal houses elsewhere.  Chinese calls this "Hu Jia Hu Wei" - "the Fox relies on the Glory of the Tiger."
 
Kuwait, before the discovery of oil, was like many of the other Gulf States, not much more than a fortress and a few oasis settlements.  There was little water and so no large population could be supported.  The poverty-stricken population relied on pearl fishery – men who dived into the sea to harvest pearls from oysters, which was a very tough but only way to make a living in these parts – until the collapse of the pearl prices following the Japanese invention of pearl farming.  These lands were governed by various tribes who often fought each other and any foreign troops who might be around.  The Gulf in those days was very poor and few powers bothered to station huge garrisons to enforce whatever territorial claims they might have there.  Why govern unruly tribes who bring in little tax revenue?
 
Kuwait lies on the outer fringes of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and the ruler of Kuwait, from the al-Sabah family, ruled the fortress of Kuwait autonomously as a qaimmaqam, or provincial sub-governor, which is theoretically subordinated to the Ottoman province of Basra, today Iraq’s second largest city.  The late 19th century was an era of decline of the fortunes of the Ottoman Empire, and the British were anxious to gain control over Kuwait, which lies near the key trade route from Turkey to India.  In 1896, the ruler of Kuwait, Muhammad bin Sabah, was assassinated by his half-brother, Mubarak al-Sabah, who in 1897 invited the British to deploy gunboats along the Kuwaiti coast.  This was quickly followed by a treaty in 1899 which gave the British control over Kuwait’s foreign policy in return for military protection and annual subsidy of 15,000 Indian rupees to the ruling family. 
 
Control over the trade routes was the objective of the treaties Britain signed with Kuwait and other Gulf States, but within half a century, it was oil which motivated political alliances or sparked off conflicts in the region.  Today, the Gulf supplies 21% of the world's oil and accounts for 46% of the world's confirmed oil reserves.  Combined this with the reserves of Iran and Iraq, the percentage rises to 66%.  So, the moment you switch on the lights or turn on your car engine, spare a thought for the suffering masses of Iraq or imagine the sound of the cash registers of the fabulous malls of Dubai.
 
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Near Dixon House was the Dasman Palace, chief residence of the Emir of Kuwait.  This was the site of intense fighting when Iraqi forces invaded in 1990 and a younger brother of the Emir was killed in the defence of the palace.  Little did I realise that a constitutional crisis was about to break out in Kuwait in less than a month's time. 
 
On 15 January 2006, the long-serving Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad passed away and Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah, 76, who has been crown prince since 1978, succeeded him.  However, Sheikh Saad had long been ill - in fact too ill to take the oath of office - and many clamoured for Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the real power behind the throne for many years, to be emir instead. 
 
Like the other Gulf States, the Kuwaiti throne does not pass from father to son.  In many Gulf States, the throne tend to pass between brothers, a system that often leads to disputes between brothers, or between those who would prefer the throne to pass from father to son.  In Kuwait's case, since Mubarak the Great assassinated his half brother in 1896, the throne has always been alternated between two branches of Mubarak's al-Sabah family. 
 
So when it became known that the new Sheikh was too ill even to take office formally, the supporters of the Prime Minister clamoured for the latter to be the emir.  This angered supporters of Sheikh Saad who felt that it should be the turn of his Salem branch of the al-Sabah family, especially given that he had played a prominent role in rallying for world support during Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. 
 
No one would have bothered if this had occurred in a landlocked African state, but Kuwait controlled 10% of the world's oil reserves. Fortunately for the energy-hungry world, after a nine-day succession crisis, Sheikh Saad had decided to abdicate in the best interests of Kuwait, and Sheikh Sabah was proclaimed emir by Parliament.
 
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Consumption of alcohol is not allowed in Kuwait, which makes the place rather dull for many expats.  I am not mad about alcohol but the ban sets the tone for the place.  Expats that I met prefer to spend their weekends in Dubai or Bahrain.  Oil accounts for over 95% of export earnings and over 40% of GDP, and is likely to continue to dominate the local economy for a long time.  So, unlike either of these two states, Kuwait’s rulers are not too concerned with income diversification, even less with tourism development.  This could also be the reason why Falaika, a major archaeological site, is not well known.
 
I did not stay long in Kuwait.  I could not find any form of local cuisine.  I did not do much except visiting a few museums and run down 1960’s style shopping malls.  I wanted to send a postcard but the post office was closed for afternoon siesta.  I had a Thai lunch, and spent one afternoon at a cybercafé called Diana, after the late princess who is probably more popular in these parts because she died in an accident with her Arab lover – which explains the popularity in the Middle East of the conspiracy theory that both of them were assassinated by the British Secret Service which according to the theory was concerned that she might convert to Islam together with the heir to the British throne.
 
Kuwait has lots of oil.  It is certainly a reasonably rich country, but perhaps one somewhat past its time.  Its streets are dirty streets; its city centre was messy and uninspiring with little investment and paintwork.  Obviously people have lived in fear of another invasion and Iraqi unrest, and thus businesses were unwilling to invest.  A stabilising Iraq may spice things up - but can it match the progress already made by Dubai?  It's also a fairly Islamic place compared to the UAE - with more restrictions on liquor and entertainment.  It is more difficult to do offshore business in that sort of environment if your neighbours enjoy greater stability and are more loosened up.
 
With that, off I went to the UAE.