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I spoke with the famous Syrian composer Malek Jandali about the current uprising and the political power of art. Listen to the interview at SOAS Radio.

 

After attending a Middle East Association conference at their offices in London’s swanky St. James district, I wrote an article for yourmiddleeast.com about the state of the Egyptian economy. Have a read.

In February 2011 pro-reform protestors took to the streets of Sohar, burning cars and a local government building. The angry shouts were concise: “Just like Egypt!”. The wave of Arab uprisings had arrived in oil-rich Oman, a country that had enjoyed 40 years of stability.

The reasons behind the protest were all too familiar. “There are no jobs, no money. The minimum wage is too low”. These complaints might be expected in Cairo or Yemen, but come as a surprise in Oman where the vast oil reserves have been successfully exploited and profits relatively well distributed amongst the population. Unfortunately, as is often the case in countries reliant on oil, a natural and broad-based economy has never developed. While poverty may not exist on the same level as Egypt or Tunisia, young men struggle to find employment amidst a work-force which ranges little from government positions and the oil industry.

In an apparent pre-emptive move to placate any would-be demonstrators, the Sultan increased the minimum wage from $160 to $200. This was obviously too little, too late.

The crowd was relaxed and cheerful and some of the older members dismissed the whole thing with a wave of the hand, “These are only small things, nothing serious.”

Demonstrations later reached the capital Muscat as well as the southern city of Salalah. Sultan Qaboos quickly pledged reforms and reshuffled his cabinet a few times and the protest movement soon died down. The Sultan may have avoided calls for his removal but the protests in Oman were proof that no regime is immune from the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring in SW1

This article was originally published in November 2011 in the Vibe

The Arab Spring was out in full force in London on the last weekend of November. The flags of Arab nations waved outside of embassies; angry Syrians, Egyptians and Bahrainis shouting in solidarity with their brethren back home. I went down on Saturday to stand in the cold with some of these demonstrators and to see how their own little wars in this affluent corner of London reflected the wider struggles in the Middle East.

First stop was the Egyptians. Just south of the Americans’ imposing behemoth on Grosvenor Square, the Egyptian embassy is tucked away down a small road, housed in an unassuming white building. Even from only a block away, the protest sounded quiet. The narrow streets contained the noise, preventing the sound of guttural Arabic slogans from escaping the tightly confined protest area. But it made it all the more impressive once you had reached the fenced-in group of demonstrators.

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This article was originally published in the Vibe in November 2011

On Saturday the Arab League, best known for tea sipping diplomats and rambling diatribes, will officially suspend Syria in reaction to the Assad regime’s continuing campaign of brutal violence against the uprising.  Referred to as an ineffectual talk shop, it has long been happy to ignore violence and abuse in pursuit of the elusive goal of “Arab unity”. But this year an unusually active League has finally stood up to some of its member states’ more heinous crimes.  First regarding Libya, when its call for a no-fly zone helped pave the way for NATO intervention, and now the threat of suspension for Syria.

An extra 3 days was granted to the Assad regime on Wednesday to implement the terms of the November 2 deal, whereby the regime would stop its brutal onslaught, pull out the military from all cities and open up the country to foreign journalists. Assad’s consent to the deal surprised many, especially as compliance would inevitably have led to his downfall. But even the disparate and fractured opposition could agree here: Assad was merely stalling, buying himself a bit more time.

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Turkey’s Growing Pains

This article was originally published in October 2011 in The Vibe

Triumphantly touring post-revolution Arab countries, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stepped off his plane in Cairo to be met by droves of cheering Egyptians. Time magazine reported that he was “greeted like a rock star”. The purpose of the visits was clear: to solidify Turkey’s role as one of the region’s key players. After a century looking west towards Europe, forcefully changing society and politics with the desperate aim of joining the European Union, Turkish foreign policy priorities would now appear to lie east and south of its borders.

Turkey has found itself managing crisis and conflict throughout the region, despite its long serving policy of “zero problems with the neighbours”. While Arab governments have publicly welcomed resurgent Turkish interest in the region they will also undoubtedly be anxious to ensure it doesn’t become too overbearing.

Take Turkey’s role in the Israel-Palestine arena. While it has long played the role of impartial negotiator, deliberately set back from the often-impassioned rhetoric and diplomatic tit-for-tat, relations with Israel have taken a nose dive (of late) lately. Much of this has been a calculated and deliberate political manoeuvre. Erdogan is effectively commandeering the Arab Spring, steering the Middle East’s fledgling democracies in a distinctly Turkey oriented direction.

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Watching the chaos in Syria, it is only natural that the international community might be feeling somewhat impotent right now. Despite growing international condemnation and ever more aggressive rhetoric, including from once strong ally Turkey, the killing in Syria continues as it has done for the past half year.

Even sanctions, one of the few weapons in the arsenal of diplomacy, may not prove as effective, or straightforward, as hoped. More specifically, the West will have to decide how far to take the sanctions and at what price to the population and to themselves.

As it stands, the most significant sanction has come at the hand of the European Union, which has banned the import of all Syrian crude oil, a policy that the EU wonks predict will hit the regime hard. Since 95 percent of oil exports head to Europe, this new sanction should deny the Syrian government a vital source of income.

But we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. The oil export industry is relatively small in Syria and accounts for only 25 percent of the regime’s hard currency earnings. This is not Libya, where switching off the oil taps effectively brought the income to a halt.

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