Diplomacy works, so to speak

OHA // On a trip to Malaysia in 1989, Thabo Mbeki and his delegation from the African National Congress were forced to find new lodgings after the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, refused to share her hotel with “terrorists”.

Yet South Africa’s apartheid leadership had already opened a dialogue with the ANC – the political party of resistance, which decades prior had a militant wing – one that would ultimately bring an end to more than four decades of racial segregation.

Mr Mbeki went on to become president of South Africa. “In the end,” he said, during his keynote speech at the Fifth Annual Al Jazeera Forum on Monday, “the regime understood that even if it continued to resist change, ultimately it saw the negotiations as the only way with which it could bargain for some share of power.”

That theme ran throughout the forum here this week: when a conflict bogs down, talks are often the best route to peace and a share of the spoils for all. The hard part is deciding when, how and with whom to parlay.

“We need to move away from the notion of whether to engage to what kind of engagement,” said Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa programme director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based conflict analyst. He urged the US to talk with supposedly unsavoury elements such as Hamas. “You can’t create peace by self-selecting those with whom you’ll engage.”

Discussion during the three-day event centered around some of the Muslim world’s most pressing problems, including Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan. A Monday session sought alternatives to the great tangle that is the peace process, but delivered mostly denunciations.

South African journalist and commentator Allister Sparks extended the parallels with his homeland, comparing Israel to the apartheid regime and the Palestinian territories to the camps where it kept South Africans from the black majority. “Like the bantustans, they are phoney homelands … used to deny them citizenship,” he said.

Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, attacked the other side. “It is staggering to see, despite the constraints around them, how badly the Palestinian leadership has done,” he said.

Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, was an equal-opportunity offender. He denounced Hamas for attacking civilians, said Israel’s international backers could be seen as supporting an occupation and called out the Arab world.

“Progress has been achieved neither by a charm offensive, such as the Arab Peace Initiative, or an offensive offensive,” he said.

A few possible solutions were presented. Mr Levy envisioned progressives from both sides uniting to create “a coalition, not even cooperation, but all rowing, perhaps, in the direction of 1967 de-occupation”.

Arguing that Palestinians have proven they will never give up their land, Basheer Nafi, a historian and Middle East analyst, said the one-state solution “offers the only genuine resolution to this conflict”.

Many felt that first the fighting had to cease. Ibrahim el Moussaoui, the head of Hizbollah’s media relations, said Hizbollah would not engage the US until it stopped supporting Israeli aggression.

Similarly, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, a former Taliban foreign minister, saw the country’s upcoming peace jirga, concurrent with the launch of the US forces’ campaign in Kandahar, as problematic. “Just imagine I’m talking to you but at the same time your men are attacking my home,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the forum. “This does not work – it has a negative psychological impact.”

Yet precedents abound. Oliver McTernan, the director of the conflict resolution consultancy Forward Thinking, said British officials were in direct contact with the Irish Republic Army throughout most of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Mark Perry, a US foreign affairs analyst, argued that negotiations with Sunnis intensified during the peak of violence in Iraq. “It wasn’t the surge that defeated the insurgents in Iraq, it was talking to them,” he said.

Sparks pointed again to South Africa. “If you wait until terrorists lay down their arms to begin negotiations, you’ll never get started.”

The United States refuses to negotiate directly with the Taliban, Hamas and Hizbollah, in part because it perceives them as terrorists, though others might call them freedom fighters.

Yet the Obama administration has voiced support for Afghan government negotiations with the Taliban. In February, the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said: “We are talking to people.” That did not include direct contact with Taliban leaders because they had yet to renounce al Qa’eda, he said.

“The agenda of the Taliban is only a national agenda, not an international agenda,” Mr Muttawakil said during a panel discussing the issue of talking with the Taliban. The distinction distances the Taliban from other caliphate-seeking, pan-Islamist jihadi affiliates of al Qa’eda.

Last week, a Hamas official said the group wanted to establish “open and stable ties” with the United States. “The US and others, they give a distorted image of the resistance,” said Osama Hamdan, a spokesman for Hamas.

Several analysts urged the United States to alter its image of the Taliban and begin talks. The current US plan in Afghanistan is focused on peeling off and “reintegrating” moderate low- and mid-level soldiers in the hopes of weakening the Taliban’s negotiating position.

“Losers cannot be choosers,” said Hamid Gul, former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, referring to the US.

“This cannot be part of the solution,” Mr Muttawakil agreed. “There are no moderate or hardline Taliban, there is only one Taliban, under Mullah Omar, and they must talk to them.”

This may explain why gains have been minimal.

“Reintegration is not going particularly well,” said Robert Grenier, a consultant and former CIA station chief in Islamabad. “Momentum is building for some sort of political reconciliation that involves the leaders of the insurgency.”

Just last week, Taliban representatives and Afghan government delegates met in the Maldives. Mr Muttawakil dismissed these talks. “There’s a lot of money out there, and some are just using this as a business.”

To negotiate sincerely with Mullah Omar, Mr Muttawakil said, the US and Afghan governments must halt military operations, release Taliban detainees in Guantanamo and Bagram, remove the blacklist of Taliban to be captured or killed and allow the Taliban an office, an address where they can be reached.

“The Taliban don’t trust all these people,” he said. “They don’t believe all the talk.”
The Taliban might be willing to accept the Afghan constitution, which incorporates elements of Sharia. Key negotiating points would involve the system of governance and a timeline for the withdrawal of foreign troops.

“It is time to end this war,” said the former Taliban foreign minister.

first ran in 28 May The National, www.thenational.ae


Gulf states getting jump on stem cell research

DOHA // “Countries today are not measured by their wealth,” said Dr Fathy Saoud, the president of Qatar Foundation, opening a stem cell forum hosted by Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar on Monday. “They are measured by what they produce, including research and ideas.”

Among medical researchers, stem cells are hot. Leading scientists are closing in on breakthroughs and lauding the cells’ potential to treat, even cure, some of the world’s most serious medical problems, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

“Stem cells have opened new and broad horizons,” Mr Saoud said, promoting the foundation’s nascent research programmes. “This is a noble purpose and we all have to seek to achieve it.”

Stem cells are found in all multicellular organisms and are marked by an ability to differentiate into various cell types. Unlike adult stem cells, stem cells taken from an embryo are completely unspecialised and can develop into any kind of tissue – to treat a variety of ailments or even replace a failing liver or heart, in theory.

But the harvesting of such cells destroys the embryo, which some see as a human life. This is why the then-US president George W Bush banned funding for embryonic stem cell research in 2001. Research continued in the UK, Japan, China and France.

The following year, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa declaring the practice consistent with Shia Islam, kick-starting Iranian research. In 2003, Saudi scholars sanctioned the use of embryos for therapeutic and research purposes, further opening the gates for Muslim stem cell research.

Turkey, Egypt and Malaysia have since launched stem cell research initiatives.

But ethical questions linger. Last July, scientists at the UK’s Newcastle University were able to produce sperm from embryonic stem cells. Several scholars, including Hassan Mohammed al Marzouqi, a professor of Sharia at UAE University, denounced the practice as prohibited by Islamic law.

The 2003 fatwa by Saudi Arabia’s Fiqh Council of the Muslim World League allowed for the use and growth of stem cells for research if obtained from a permissible source, which includes the placenta or umbilical cord, embryos or foetuses that have been miscarried or aborted for medical reasons and leftover embryos from in vitro fertilisation.

Cloning and the use of any intentionally aborted embryos are haram, according to Ali Qaradaghi, a Sharia professor at Qatar University. “The Sharia verdict for stem cells is undoubtedly that preserving human life and human generations is the main aim,” he said during the forum. “Anything that achieves this objective in a way that does no harm is considered acceptable.”

Concerns about embryos may soon be irrelevant. Researchers in Japan, the UK and the US, where President Barack Obama overturned the Bush ban last year, have had some success genetically reprogramming adult stem cells to act like embryonic stem cells.

Such advancements are likely to boost the Gulf’s nascent programmes. The three-year old stem cell therapy programme at King Faisal Hospital in Riyadh has published several papers, filed a handful of patent applications and established a collaborative project with Harvard University.

Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid, the UAE Minister of Finance and Industry, has set up a Dh20 million (US$5.4m) institution in his name that focuses on genetics and stem cell research and presents major regional and international awards every other year.

In Doha, the Qatar Foundation is the nexus. The government-backed non-profit made its interest in stem cell research known in 2006, with a US$2.5m donation to support stem cell research at Rice University’s James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy in Texas.

The Qatar Foundation plans a stem cell laboratory within the $3billion Sidra Medical Centre, as well as a biomedical research institute that is slated for completion in 2014 and will include a genetics and stem cell unit. In addition, the foundation has held a series of workshops and partnered with Virgin Health Bank, which is set to open a stem cell storage facility in Doha by next spring.

“One of the main goals of the programme is to be oriented toward the Qatari population,” said Dr Jeremi Tabrizi, who leads stem cell research at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Leading medical challenges in Qatar and across the Gulf include diabetes, leukaemia and serious blood disorders – all potentially treatable with stem cell therapy. Weill Cornell Medical College has the core capabilities in place and has begun working on cancer stem cells, but is awaiting government policy and legislative decisions before working with embryonic stem cells.

“Stem cell research is one of the highest priorities of the emir and Qatar Foundation,” added Mr Tabrizi, speaking just after the forum. “All of us are expecting the science to grow here.”

Some analysts argue that Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are mainly importing the talent and trademarks from abroad, not building indigenous capacity. But two doctors from Rice University’s James Baker Institute, which maintains its stem cell partnership with the Qatar Foundation, believe these programmes hold the potential to not just heal the sick, but also build diplomatic bridges.

“We conclude that the national governments of countries within the greater Middle East,” Jesse Flynn and Kristin Matthews write in the March 2010 Stem Cell Review, “have the unique opportunity to establish stem cell research policies which confer interoperability between nations to foster crucial international collaborations throughout the region.”

originally ran in the National, www.thenational.ae


Detailed Gulf demographics coming soon

DOHA // A small army of enumerators took to the streets of Qatar and other Gulf countries a couple weeks ago, knocking on doors and asking each head of household a battery of questions about personal technology use, health, employment, residential status and more.

Armed with handheld computers, these foot soldiers in an unprecedented regionally synchronised census are helping compile a detailed and potentially invaluable portrait of Gulf demographics.

“For the longest time in the GCC, we have had this problem with planning; we always seem to be caught by surprise," said Hatem Samman, a Saudi national and director of the Ideation Centre, a Dubai-based think tank run by Booz and Co.

“Given that the GCC is heading towards economic union, they want to know the make-up of their populations,” he added. “It’s very important, very helpful to have data of all sorts, to know the characteristics of your people. You can respond to whatever factors that affect you.”

Of late, those factors have been considerable. The population of the GCC has increased nearly 45 per cent in the past decade and, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, is set to increase by an additional third within the next decade, tipping 53 million.

Qatar’s growth has been the most rapid. As of the end of March, the Qatar Statistics Authority estimated the country’s population at 1.68 million. If accurate, this would represent a 125 per cent increase from the most recent census – in 2004.

“Our country development moved very quickly,” said Hassan al Mohannadi, the director of the government’s permanent population committee. “We need frequently to readjust the levels of our development to cope with the surging needs.”

For the census, the QSA divided the country into more than 100 areas, each of which it then subdivided into a couple dozen blocks. In the past few months census takers gave every building in each of those blocks a number, then recorded the surnames and number of occupants in each unit and distributed pamphlets detailing the personal interviews to come.

Then they began knocking on doors and entering info into their specially programmed personal digital assistants. “If the enumerator tries to enter info that’s inconsistent, like a three-year-old female who is also a mother, it won’t allow him to do that,” said Mark Grice, a statistical expert from the United States who has been working with QSA for two years.

The survey includes questions about the number of wives and children, education and type of drinking water used.

“I have nothing to hide,” Rafik Boushlaka, a British national of Tunisian origin said after completing his census interview. He was standing outside the front door of his Doha home as his five-year-old daughter, Elaa, ducked under and out from his legs. “They will analyse the data and use it to make decisions. Any modern state needs information such as this.”

At the end of their shift, enumerators dump the data onto a desktop, which uploads it to a central server. As a result, preliminary data is available almost immediately. The entire census, from first phase to final results, is scheduled to take eight months.

Still there have been bumps in the road. One enumerator, Abdulaziz Abdulrahman, working in Doha’s Bin Mahmoud area, said residents are not home on the majority of his initial visits.

“I have to come back three, sometimes four, times,” he said, suggesting that the initial completion date of May 15 may not hold. “I don’t think even a month will be enough time to finish our work.”

Further, despite an official dictate mandating cooperation with the census, certain respondents have been less then forthcoming. “It’s been easy to get the information from foreigners,” said Naser Aideen Ahmed, a census inspector. “But the locals, sometimes they’re not telling us everything.”

Privacy of the family is a pillar of Qatari and Khaliji culture, so the withholding of some personal information may be understandable. Such hurdles are not unexpected.

“If anyone doing a census tells you there are no problems, they’re lying,” Mr Grice said. “But it’s nothing we can’t handle.”

Mr Grice said home absences had been built in to the census plan and that inquiries and complaints could be made online or to a census hotline.

Barring major delay, a wealth of detailed information on nearly the entire population of the Gulf should be available to the public by the end of the year. The joint 2010 census, with each Gulf country taking part and using the same questionnaire, is the realisation of a commitment made by Gulf leaders at a GCC summit in Muscat in 2001.

Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain began surveying last week and Kuwait’s census is set to kick-off this month. The UAE scaled back its national census, which will now be done mostly at the federal level. But Abu Dhabi recently began recording the occupants of each residence, and will roll out the survey phase of its census in October.

Qatar plans to release its census data that same month, offering more than 130 tables and charts on its website. Ideally, businesses will use the data to move towards potential clients, developers will find and respond to the greatest housing needs and governments will provide better infrastructure and services, perhaps even before they are needed.

“This census will provide all of our various decision-makers with detailed information on demographic, economic, technological and social indicators, by block and by zone across the whole country,” Nasser al Mahdi, census director within the Qatar Statistics Authority, said in an interview. “This new data, inshallah, will inform and help them implement their plans in education, in health or any sector.”

Some of those plans are likely to embrace tradition. In the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait, nationals represent less than 30 per cent of the population. Depending on the data, results from the current census may exacerbate Gulf concerns about the eroding of national culture and identity.

This week, the Qatar government ordered all private schools to teach Qatari history, Islam and Arabic. The UAE has launched a major effort to increase the use of Arabic. Qatari officials have also nurtured the Musheireb project, a downtown development costing US$5.5 billion (Dh20bn) that incorporates traditional architectural and social elements, as well as the Museum of Islamic Art, which opened last year, and the coming National Museum of Qatar.

“There has been a lot of talk lately about the identity of nationals and the Arabic language and the effect on culture,” Mr Samman said. “What you have to do is stress certain aspects of your culture that you can promote, perhaps a linguistic policy, or local-oriented education and development.”

originally appeared in the 7 May 2010, The National, www.thenational.ae


Where the streets may soon have names...

Doha // The directions for a recent party at the residence of Edward Noriega ran to nine sentences and included references to a furniture store, three roundabouts, two fast food restaurants, a Montessori school and a speed bump.

“It’s a nightmare telling people how to get to my apartment,” said Mr Noriega, an investment manager from New York who moved to Doha in December. “I’d much rather say 75 West 20th street.”

He may get his wish.

In Qatar, as in much of the Gulf, most streets have no name, postal services require PO boxes and residents identify their location via landmarks and other topographical points of reference.

But a decision by the Qatari cabinet last week empowers the Central Municipal Council to name all streets, avenues and public parks. The move should ultimately simplify party hosting, pizza delivery and parcel distribution and pave the way for a western-style addressing system throughout the country.

“Its all part of the desire to become a world-class city,” said Rami el Samahy, an architecture and urban design professor at Carnegie Mellon University-Qatar.

Prof el Samahy, who teaches a seminar on contemporary Middle Eastern cities, pointed out that the population of Doha is estimated to have doubled since 2004. The challenge now, he said, is "to make sense of it all.”

While the streets of Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman remain mostly nameless, Qatar’s initiative dovetails with addressing systems being considered or implemented in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Saudi Arabia.

The reasons for the trend are clear. Western expatriates see the lack of a street system – being made to draw a map on a delivery form, rather than write an address, is a popular reference – as a time-consuming throwback from the Middle Ages. Businesses suffer as a result of slow or failed parcel deliveries and daily trips to the post office to retrieve mail.

Taxi drivers suffer, too. “My dispatchers tell me backside, but it’s not backside – it’s beside,” said Daniel Ali Mukhtar, an Indonesian who has been driving a taxi in Doha for four years. “They give incorrect directions all the time.”

More seriously, firefighters and police often have to navigate unfamiliar areas to find their destination, inevitably putting lives at risk.

Yet addressing systems are time-consuming and expensive. The Abu Dhabi initiative is costing an estimated Dh200 million and completion is set for mid-2012. The Dubai programme, now on hold, is said to have been budgeted at Dh900m.

No estimate has been made for the Qatar initiative as it is still in its early stages. The ministry of municipal affairs and urban planning will soon create a street naming committee, comprised of representatives from the Supreme Education Council, the ministry of culture, arts, and heritage, the Public Works Authority and the private sector.

With help from the Central Municipal Council, that panel will build a list of thousands of possible street names appropriate for Qatari culture, history and geography. Finally, municipal constituencies will hold public hearings to review and approve the new names.

That’s just the first step. After naming more than 9,000 roadways, for instance, Abu Dhabi’s Department of Municipal Affairs, which is overseeing the address programme, must install uniform signage. It has hired the Australian Road Research Board Group to develop a street signs manual to determine where signs will be placed, their lettering, coloring and other specifics.

Qatar authorities have yet to decide how each building might be numbered and whether to adapt the postal system. “Are they going to deliver mail?” asked Prof el Samahy. “That could be a boon.”

In the end, the system may fail to take root. Prof el Samahy cited an address system in Caracas installed several years ago. Locals never learned the street names and the system fell out of use.

Juma Mubarak al Junaibi, the director general of Abu Dhabi Municipality, has acknowledged that the main challenge is getting the public to make use of the new system.

Indeed, navigation by landmark appears deeply ingrained into the Gulf psyche. More than two years into Saudi Arabia’s programme, which incorporates geographic co-ordinates and mail sorting systems that can read English and Arabic, businesses still use PO boxes and residents generally navigate by topographical references and large thoroughfares.

Most Abu Dhabi streets have had names or numbers for years, but locals generally prefer to use landmarks because the names are little-known. Doha, where some 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the streets have names, has a similar problem.

“If the customer gives us street names and numbers than it’s very, very difficult to find their place,” said Mohammad Shabab, the sales manager at the Garden Centre, a popular Doha flower shop. “But if he gives us landmarks and good directions than we are fine.”

Mr Mukhtar, the taxi driver, recalled incidents in which the use of a street name proved more difficult than topographical navigation. The transplanted New Yorker, meanwhile, felt confident.

“People are not used to addresses here, so there’s going to be a process of education,” said Mr Noriega. “In the end it’ll be a much safer, more efficient way to get from Point A to Point B.”

an edited version ran in the 30 April The National, www.thenational.ae