The Qatar Blockade: A Reflection

To all my friends and relatives: thank you for all your love, care, prayers and concerns.  We are all well, safe and enjoying food like always in Qatar. There are no empty shelves in the grocery stores and everything is on routine. We have food and lots of it!  

To everyone who is wondering what is going on: I am writing at a time when Qatar is facing a blockade from the neighboring GCC countries; Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.  On June 5th, the 12th fasting day of Ramadan, the country woke up to the news that Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt are cutting ties with Qatar. Qatar stands accused of funding terrorism and meddling with the internal affairs of the four neighboring countries. Soon thereafter other countries followed suit: Yemen, Maldives, Mauritania, Eastern Libyan government, Senegal and Comoros. Others such as Jordan downgraded diplomatic relations with Qatar. Kuwait and Oman stayed neutral with Kuwait leading the mediation efforts to resolve the crisis.

At the time, everyone thought that like the rift in 2014, this conflict too will resolve itself. So the closure of land border, air space and sea will really not last that long.

But matters took a different turn.

The conflict evolved and saw announcement from Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain calling their citizens to return from Qatar within 14 days and for Qataris to leave these countries and head back to Qatar.  On the other hand, there were reports that the grocery stores’ shelves are empty as people hurried and stocked up on necessities like water, milk, chicken and rice.

Since June 05th, the crisis hasn’t abated and the political and economic blockade continues. The 13 demands list issues by the four Arab states: including shutting down Al Jazeera, scaling down relations with Iran and shut down the Turkish army base, stands rejected by Qatar. The mediation efforts to resolve the crisis continues from US, Kuwait and Oman.

As the crisis continues and evolves, what have I learned from the current blockade?

A crisis in any form, in any area, whether personal or professional, not only brings changes in life, but also, changes one’s perception and thoughts on various matters.

Qatar is a country where I was born and live to this day. It is my home where I’ve had my beautiful childhood and teenage years. Whenever asked where I’m from, my answer is Qatar (followed by an explanation in a few seconds that I’m Pakistani, but was born and raised in Qatar).

The crisis when it began was a shock. The first thing coming to mind was the 1990 Gulf War scenario. The fear, the anxiety and the confusion all at once raced simultaneously in mind. We, the family, were here in Qatar then and now. We didn’t leave because there was no question at all leaving my dad behind alone. As mom says, “we stay together and  go through every single thing together”.

But in times of political and economic crisis, there are always human costs involved. Qatar was no different. According to Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) “at least 13,314 people were directly affected by anti-Qatar measures” with the violations including family separations, right to travel, education, work, freedom of opinion, residency and ownership. It sent shivers down my spine. I realized how we take family relations and friends for granted. We don’t even think what if , one day, they are all taken away from us. It made me highly grateful to be with my family and to have relations in my life.

The blockade via land, airspace and sea meant that many goods would no longer be available.  Products like Almarai milk, butter and other goods from Saudi, UAE and Bahrain would be unavailable during this crisis. The initial scenario where the stores faced empty racks was true because people panicked and ensured that basic necessities like rice, chicken and milk were available at least for children. Qatar government assured the residents that it had taken measures to ensure that normal life routine continues in the country and there is no need to panic. Turkey and Iran both countries sent food both via plane and sea.

What amazed me was how as consumers we are all highly adaptable to situations. We teach and study in economics that given the change in factors, consumers substitute from one good to another. In times of crisis, that holds to be absolutely true. We didn’t have Almarai milk, but, we bought Turkish milk (and are amazed how actually good it is!). I love Dandy yogurt (made in Qatar), but Turkish yogurt is good. We, the consumers, quickly shifted our preferences to other brands, which makes me wonder when this crisis is over would we ever return to Almarai milk and yogurt?

Prices did spike as expected. Now as goods arrive via sea, the prices will start to go down.

I also highly appreciate mom’s small vegetable garden here. While there was a shortage of mint and coriander leaves for some time, we were enjoying fresh mint, tomatoes and chillies from our Mama Khan’s little vegetable garden 🙂 (she even gave fresh mint leaves to her friends!) The idea of a farm-house really is not that bad 🙂 Maybe in future, I might go for a farm-house than a city life (just a thought).

The critical lesson learned in this crisis is: leadership,patience and tolerance.

The Qatar government continues to bear all the costs ensuring that normal life in Qatar continues for all the residents. And indeed, the normal life continues.

Bahrain and UAE banned people from publishing expressions of sympathy towards Qatar. Sympathizing with Qatar in UAE and Bahrain was a cyber crime, with the offenders facing fines of up to $136,000 and up to 15 years of jail term. While the boycotting countries’ media said a lot on social media, Qatar government requested all its residents to take the higher road by not insulting or saying anything negative about the boycotting countries and their leaders and to express their opinions in a peaceful manner on social media. This is tolerance and what we have seen here is a real life example.

This is true leadership!   Every one has the right to their opinion and there are always agreements and disagreement. Successful is the one who is patient, listens to others and presents arguments in a peaceful, constructive and respectable manner. The Qatari leadership is a prime example of this.

Despite the blockade from neighboring countries, Qatar did not expel their citizens and assured them that they are welcome to stay (even when it could have taken the same path).  Despite the tense environment, we see patience and the leadership continuous, non-stop effort to resolve the crisis through constructive dialogue. It has won the people’s hearts and support! The “Tamim Al Majd” (meaning “Tamim the glorious”) is viral. From car stickers to murals to posters on residences, the strong support and love is evident. Its’ in the air! It brought everyone together under one roof. It has strengthened the unity of a nation.

The crisis has taught me strong positive lessons. I always am grateful for things, but now, I’m highly grateful for the small things in life which we take for granted. I have many times thought the in today’s time values don’t matter. Wrong. Values, how you conduct yourself in life and how you treat others does matter for they form real human connections that are not broken easily. I have learned to be hopeful, even in tense times and remain optimistic.

I am thankful for everything in life.

The Arab Revolutions 2011

These are uncertain times. The year 2011 like its predecessor began differently. Middle East – the region assumed by many to be safe, erupted like a volcano when streams of people came out on the streets, demanding change for a better life, for better conditions and for freedom.  What began in Tunisia spread like contagion in various other parts of the Middle East.  Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Jordan, Algeria and Libya saw people rising against their own rulers and taking fate in their own hands. It is as if nations are awakened from a long sleep.

Many of us have read about revolutions only in history books.  We know the accounts through the eyes of the witnesses present at the time, who wrote about the circumstances and the conditions that prevailed and the chaos that came.

But today the story is different. Although we are not directly present in the current uprisings in the Arab region, we are witnessing via satellite images, news and social media, accounts of hundreds and thousands of people who want change and are struggling to find their place in both national and international arena. We are observing a tremendous phenomenon in a region that for over a decade have been led by dictators, was thought to lack intellectual thoughts on concepts such as democracy, constitution, poverty and international relations and only knew how to subordinate to outside demands. That has changed.

The Center for Regional Studies, Georgetown – School of Foreign Service in Qatar presented the distinguished lecture on “The Arab Revolutions 2011” by Rashid Khalidi  last night in Grand Hyatt, Doha, Qatar. Dr. Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University in New York and is also the editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies. He was an advisor to the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid and Washington Arab-Israeli peace negotiations from October 1991 until June 1993. He is author of many books such as Sowing Crisis: American  Dominance and the Cold War in the Middle East (2009) and The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (2006). Thus, the lecture was of critical importance due to both the timing and the changes taking place on a global scale.

The Arab Revolutions

What we are witnessing are tectonic changes and historic moments in the Middle East. Countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and more possibly Yemen saw despotic regimes crumbling before the very eyes of the world. Yet, this is not the first time that the region is witnessing such movements. For a decade, the Arab world has witnessed movements against various regimes such as Syrian Revolt in 1925-1926 and Libyan-Italian resistance movement in 1911 and onwards. In these movements, massive force was deployed by regimes to crush the uprising. History bears witness to massive air strikes against civilians that  resulted in major causalities, which became a sombre human chapter. Thus, for Rashid Khalidi,  the current uprising is not new at all.

Hosni Mubarak
Hosni Mubarak

However, for the first time,  the revolutions throw some light on how Arabs were perceived by the world. Thought of as a region lacking intellectual thoughts on concepts such as democracy, constitution, political rights, freedom of speech, human rights, international relations and social justice, the revolutions have shown with crystal clarity that intellectual thoughts within the Arab world have always existed and it was only forgotten with time. There exists an immense dynamic in terms of intellectual discourse as the Arab youth is well aware of many ideas and knows how to delegate its thoughts. The Egyptian revolution organized through the use of social media is an example of how the youth today knows ways to achieve its goals and is aware of the global dynamics being played out.  Rashid Khalidi argued that the ideas of constitutions and democracy are now new to the Arab world. They came from the Ottoman Empire. Yet, within the Arab world, they all faced failures simply because the self interest and other internal factors came into play. In addition to this, the European colonialism obstructed the democratic rule by undermining the democratic systems in these countries, which led to military driven corrupt regimes.

The revolutions were brought about by the amalgamation of several factors such as lack of social justice, poverty, lack of accountability, lack of transparency, unemployment and freedom of speech. But these factors were fueled in turn by the dogmatic neo-liberal policies of the Washington institutions such as IMF, World Bank and WTO. The uprisings, therefore, is also against the dogmatic policies which have brought nothing but misery and suffering. Privatization, shredding of safety nets such as subsidies, health care, increasing exports while lowering tariffs have only worsened the economic indicators. Income inequality, poverty, unemployment and inflation are just some of the on-the-side effects that the countries bore for following Washington institutions’ policies. The policies made international corporates fatter via super profits, while, the poor and local suffered. An example is that during Mubarak’s era, the real wages declined rather than increasing and people became poorer. Only 4% of the population the so called elite class received the benefits of the policies, while, the poor became poorer.  Thus, the revolutions demanded ‘dignity’; dignity of individual and dignity of nation.

It cannot be denied that the autocratic regimes excessively infringed the rights of its people. Most of these countries were police driven states that used violence as means to quell the public and to ensure that the order of the day goes in their favor. The ‘social malaise’ infested itself in the form of sectarian violence, violence against women, social injustices and various other forms that tore apart the social and moral fabric of the society. The rulers had nothing but contempt of their own people by perceiving them as immature, incapable of handling democracy, disillusioned and have no respect in the world. And there is no doubt that these are the characteristics displayed by rulers such as Mubarak and Gaddafi in their speech.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi

On the other hand, it is unfortunate that within the Arab world, there is no real “Arab Power’ .  Thus,  the continuous infringement of  dignity, repression and lack of economic development and growth, paved the way for a rebellion that broke all the barriers. The scenes from Tunisia and Egypt with thousands gathering, protesting and demanding the removal of autocratic regimes are a testament to the fact that at the end of the day, it is the people who rule and not the governments.

However, there are many challenges in various fields. The present Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries presently face a daunting task in terms of rebuilding democratic institutions to provide social justice and economic growth for increasing equal opportunities. Further, according to Rashid Khalidi, the task is complicated by the fact that in the globalized world we are living in today, the rebuilding of countries cannot alienate the West. Thus, with the uncertainty and the vacuum in the leadership, there is a possibility that the forces of the repression could be back should there be a failure in achieving the critical tasks. The oldest tool in the book of politics is sectarian and ethnic violence, that is, creating tensions between certain religious sects such as Christians and Muslims in Egypt. This very tool could pave a way of comeback of a repressive regime. However, should the fire and the energy of the youth remains alive,it would be difficult for such regime to take hold.

The Role of US and Europe

Rashid Khalidi stated that with the internal struggle going on in various countries, both US and Europe should refrain from preaching the young Arabs about democracy. This is because each Arab country is different and with the consequences of the dictated policies by world organizations, developed world should let the Arab people decide the course they want to take. For a long time, US has been torn in its Middle East foreign policy in terms of pointing out several abuses in the countries and protecting its own self interests. But with the US media covering the unrest in the Middle East in a fair manner, the public wants the people to take their decisions which is dictating the US policies for now. However, as soon as the public interests wanders, the US policy would be back to protecting its own self interests. Thus, the US should realize that the stagnant Arab world is now changing and that the decisions are now being taken on streets with the realization that the freedom is not free and sacrifices will be made to achieve it.

Food For Thought

Clearly, the future of the Arab countries remains uncertain. The dynamics are changing, but, where will they lead remains in question. There are developments that require both attention and thoughts. The latest development of Morocco and Jordan invited to join the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) has taken everyone by surprise. Why in the face of uprisings are these countries being invited to join the GCC? The development raises an eyebrow for it seems that the two countries are now seeking external support other than from US and Europe. The freezing of assets of Mubarak and Gaddafi by the developed world indicates that perhaps some level of distrust has now taken place. The situation of Bahrain with Saudi Arabia and UAE coming in for help could also be one reason why Morocco and Jordan could seek membership of the Council and certainly this can change the dynamics even further.

In the face of such change, the relations between the Arab world and US-Israel will be tested. Israel has lost a crucial ally in the Middle East with the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt. It will be interesting to observe the relations between the two regions over time and over the global scale.

Unprecedented changes are taking place and only time will reveal the results.

Mother Nature – The Biggest Challenge of the Year 2010?

Volcano Eruption

‘Pacific Submarine Volcano Issues ‘Big Burp” (CNN)

According to CNN, the volcano lying under the sea merely exhaled. ‘The vent, lying 1,000 feet under the surface, issued a cloud 40,000 reaching feet in the air’ (CNN).  If  ash cloud reaching only 40,000 feet in the air (and mind the volcano was in sea) was a burp then what would an active eruption be?!

Mother Nature is definitely not smiling this year.  The year 2010 is witnessing the worst disasters ever and one is only taken aback by the magnitude of these disasters.  First, the Haiti earthquake that literally devastated the country claiming 200,000 lives. Then, the Chile earthquake of the same magnitude occurred but with lower loss of human lives. As if this was not enough,the Icelandic volcano erupted causing global chaos. Flights were cancelled, airports throughout Europe were closed due to the ash cloud, passengers were stranded all around the world not knowing when they will return home and airlines suffered the losses estimated to be at billions.  The impact didn’t stop here for it added to the woes of the European economies that are now tackling the debt and fearing the contagion of the Greece crisis could spillover to other euro countries.

But it did not end here.  The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in US claimed 11 lives and is continuously leaking oil which has caused havoc on the Louisiana coastline. Another report by CNN claims that a 6.1 magnitude earthquake hit Costa Rica Monday night but no damages have been reported. In addition to his, the man-made disasters are not far behind. The raid on Freedom Flotilla by Israel forces claimed 9 lives (although there are conflicting reports that the numbers are higher) leading to worldwide condemnation of the strike.

With such scenarios being on the TVs continuously,the question is

Where in 2010 is the world heading?

In the present times, such kind of natural disasters are wreaking havoc not only on the environment, but also, on the societies and economies.

The global economic recovery is weak and policy-makers definitely are facing challenging times ahead of them. With debt crisis looming in the developed world, natural disasters do have the capacity to pressurize the economies and prolong the crisis. The European economies not only face challenges in terms of their debt, but,  a strain is now being felt in the unity of the Euro zone.  Many believe that the handling of the Greece crisis has displayed the conflicts within the Euro members and therefore, the Euro will not last long as a bloc.

On the other hand, US which is facing a tight situation with regards to its fiscal situation after the bailout of its financial sector cannot afford any other disasters.  The oil spill of the Deepwater Horizon has placed an immense pressure on the state due to loss of jobs in the fishing industry of Louisiana. The effect on one industry will multiply through various channels and consumer spending power will get affected.

Loss of jobs because of globalization, the financial meltdown and now because of oil spill will have its own effects on the society. Consumer spending power is hit and with people losing jobs, finding another job is difficult. These difficulties end up affecting relations and the moral fabric of the society.  And in such times, to stay positive and keep on fighting becomes extremely difficult.

One hopes that Mother Nature will have mercy and will be forgiving in the year ahead. But till then, it is also time for us to rethink our ways and actions and try to build a better world for the upcoming generation.

Too Big, Too Powerful, the Saga Continues……

The bloodless saga of the major banks’  continues and Goldman Sachs is the new victim. All eyes are set on the fraud charges brought against Goldman Sachs. It seems that the current financial crisis will not be over until it exposes all the skeletons in the closet.  Such exposure is sending seismic shocks to global economy.  The charges brought on Goldman Sachs has led to further investigations in Europe in its practices.  So what went wrong?

Big banks and Wall Street are blamed heavily for bringing on the financial mess that literally led to freezing of the system and the credit lines. The bundling of subprime mortgages and other credit stocks led to the biggest global crisis and spared no one. The governments of the developed countries stepped in and bailed out the system before it collapsed causing further chaos.

The crisis further exposed the grand pay and bonuses of the executives, the greed and the power of the system in creating panics and contractions within the economy. On the other side, Greece deals with Goldman Sachs is now under question as the figures of the Greek economy is expected to be worst than before.

So how did this system ever came about and become so powerful to actually bring the global economy to a stand still?

Too Big To Fail – Really?

The theory ‘Too Big to Fail’ primarily meant that the operations of the entity are so large and diversified that the system is immune to failure.   On the other hand, the existence of large operations also meant that the governments will not allow them to declare bankruptcy as it could set off a chain reaction within the system. With economy being dynamic today, the chain reaction will ripple across through various routes, directly and indirectly, bringing undesirable consequences.

The financial institutions became so large that it was assumed that they were immune to failure. And if something was to happen, the government will step in to save them in fear to avoid chain reaction.

What is in question here is why was it ever presumed that large corporations because of their diversified and extensive operations remain immune to failure?  Common sense says ‘What goes up must come down’. Thus, if an entity continues to expand to the extent that it becomes global and dominates the particular industry, there are chances no matter how low that one day it is going to come down or rather in the current crisis come crashing down.

The assumption above got tested in a BIG way because the financial institutions that created this whole complex world of derivatives and credit swaps knew too well that the government will not allow bankruptcy to take place.  This very line of thought provided the very incentive to take on high risk even if it came at the expense of the ordinary individual down on the street. This is what in economics is termed as ‘moral hazard’ problem. This moral hazard ended up creating the biggest financial mess in the global history.

Lehman Brothers, AIG, Merill Lynch (only to be saved by Bank of America) and now Goldman Sachs all are examples of how becoming BIG leads to power, greed and exploitation. The financial crisis exploded and bared the dirty mechanisms at work on Wall Street and financial entities.

President Obama call for reforming the financial sector comes at a time when the theory of too big to fail is being questioned by all, especially, regarding the financial sector. There is further talk of breaking down the operations of these large financial entities in order to bring them under closer regulatory scrutiny and lowering the power within the sector. There are various questions on the reforms being brought about, for example, will the reforms guarantee that such a crisis will not occur again and that too on a grand scale? Will the regulations be tough enough to bring and rein in the loose financial entities?

However, at this time, the calls for reforming are being welcomed by all.  The questions will be debated and the world will keep an eye on the situation. Currently, the saga of the Goldman Sachs will be followed by all and one wonders whether more secrets will be out.

For now, the financial crisis is hell bent on baring more dirty secrets of the industry and will only rest in peace once justice is served.