Is Qatar the Gulf nation we should be worried about?

TRT World is a recently established English language news outlet presenting a Turkish perspective on local and global events. If you’re looking for a different take from the one you may be getting in your own local media, you may find their viewpoint interesting.

UAE & Trump

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Armed Forces Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan as he sits down to a meeting with of Gulf Cooperation Council leaders

The UAE and Saudi Arabia claim to be opposed to Daesh, yet by supporting a regional order that has contempt for basic lberties, democracy and human life, it is providing daesh with the chaos and blood that is its most vital fuel.

When justifying its recent decision –  along with the UAE, Egypt, the Maldives, Bahrain, Yemen (or what’s left of it) and the Eastern Libyan government – to sever relations with Qatar, Saudi Arabia put out a statement claiming that the reason was that its former ally was “harbouring a multitude of terrorist and sectarian groups that aim to create instability in the region”.

The UAE followed suit, claiming that Qatar was guilty of “ongoing policies that rattle the security and sovereignty of the region as well as its manipulation and evasion of its commitments and treaties”.

This has long been coming.  While the Trump administration might paint this as Saudi and the UAE getting ‘tough on terror’, Qatar is being singled out for its support for revolution in the Arab world – its support for democratic forms of Islamism, namely the Muslim Brotherhood.

saudi criminalsThis is the reason Saudi and, even more strenuously, the UAE have rounded against Qatar. The groups in question are not ISIS (Daesh), but rather groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood – groups that have adhered to Islamic democracy.  The Brotherhood is the main target of this action by Saudi, the UAE and Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood

A few weeks ago the Abu Dhabi-owned daily newspaper The National published an editorial on the Muslim Brotherhood, the title of which declared that the Brotherhood and the Islamic State group (IS) ‘share the same swamp’.

The editorial tenuously justifies this absurd claim by listing instances where the Brotherhood, or its political wings and offshoots, have got into power through democracy.

deceit-disease-slavery UAEFor example, the editorial cites a completely illogical correlation between the election of 16 “Islamists” in the Jordanian parliamentary elections – by which it surely means the election of 15 members of the National Coalition for Reform (NCR) – and “[IS]-related incidents” in the country.

It seems to have escaped the authors of the editorial that the Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Action Front is merely one component force of the NCR, which is a broad democratic coalition that includes secular Jordanian nationalists, ethnic minorities, Christians and women.  This is what the UAE considers to be ‘terrorism’.

And this perhaps subtly reveals the main problem the UAE and Saudi have with Brotherhood-affiliated groups and Qatar, which has refused to persecute them and has backed them. The two nations might seek to claim that the Brotherhood is a threat to democracy, but it is precisely its participation in democracy that makes the Brotherhood such a threat to the UAE.

Read the whole article


Who in their right mind would want to visit Dubai?

Here’s a piece that caught my eye in the UK’s Daily Telegraph – echoing my sentiments pretty accurately about the United Arab Emirates, and in particular, Dubai. I’ll happily pay extra money for my ticket to see family downunder to avoid stopping over there:

Federer and Djokovic play in the 2014 Dubai Tennis Champs. Count the Arabs.

Federer and Djokovic play in the 2014 Dubai Tennis Champs. Count the Arabs.

Sterile and morally destitute Dubai shows what happens when you chase heavy pay cheques at the cost of all else, says Alex Proud. London, take note …

As the days draw in and the nights get colder, my thoughts turn to Dubai.

I hasten to add my thoughts do not turn to Dubai (or DOO-Boyyyy as many of its fans call it) as a potential vacation destination for the Proud family. Rather, I find myself thinking of it as an eternal, enduring mystery. Namely, why anyone would want to visit this ghastly place? 

It’s not just the onset of autumn either. The other reason I’ve been thinking about Dubai is that the Saudis are getting all sorts of bad press at the moment. I despise Saudi Arabia. It’s a hideous, brutal, oil-rich theocracy that exports terrorism. But you know what? It really doesn’t really pretend to be anything else. You know where you stand with Saudi Arabia. 

Dubai's labour force - largely supplied by India, Pakistan, Bangladesh etc

Dubai’s labour force – largely supplied by India, Pakistan, Bangladesh etc

Dubai, on the other hand, markets itself as fun in the sun, a kind of Las Vegas on the Persian Gulf. Yet it has far more in common with Saudi Arabia than you’d imagine. Before you say, “But Alex, Dubai is the forward looking part of the Middle East that wants to engage with the world,” I invite you to consider the case of Marte Deborah Dalelv. 

Dalelv is a Norwegian fashion designer who was on a business trip in Dubai in 2013. During an evening out, she was raped. She later reported her attack to the police. The authorities’ reaction? Ms Dalelv was charged with perjury, having extramarital sex and drinking alcohol. She received a 16-month jail sentence. 

There was an international outcry over the case, and eventually Ms Dalelv was pardoned by Dubai’s rulers, almost certainly because of the bad PR. Except it wasn’t “bad” PR. It was accurate PR, and it made Dubai look like what it is: a nasty little theocracy in a shopping mall.

Read the whole article

The Nepalese Don’t Understand Capitalism

Surfing through the TV channels on a laid-back New Year’s Day I chanced upon a tennis match involving my favourite Spanish left-handed World No 1. It seems one of the tournaments warming players up for the Australian Open Grand Slam in Melbourne this month is being held in Doha, capital city of that well-known tennis-playing nation, Qatar.
Spot the tennis-players. ExxonMobil tournament in Qatar
Excuse me if a little cynicism crept into that last sentence. You can’t really blame the players, I know, because after all, tennis is their job, and there’s $US 1,096,910 in prize money up for grabs in that Doha tournament. Still, I felt some admiration for Roger Federer, who is apparently doing his warm-up in Brisbane, Australia.
You are perhaps aware that the hereditary absolute monarchy of Qatar is also scheduled to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, but has been attracting some unwelcome media attention for alleged mistreatment of labourers working on the associated huge construction projects. The tiny Arab state is, according to Wikipedia, ‘the world’s richest country [by per capita GDP]and achieved the highest human development in the Arab World and 36thhighest globally . . . and also the 19th most peaceful country in the world’.  Qatar has a population of 1,903,447 of which, sadly for male Qataris, only 498,283 (or 26 percent) are female. In fact, however, only 15 percent of those nearly two million residents are actually citizens – the vast majority being expatriate male labourers from India, Nepal, the Philippines, Bangladesh and other nations not ranked quite so high on lists of per capita wealth and/or peacefulness.
One assumes, then, given the high level of peace in Qatar, that Qatari males have better odds of finding a girl than the overall statistic might lead us to think. Similarly, since wages for migrant workers, according to Human Rights Watch, ‘typically range from $8 to $11 for between nine and eleven hours of gruelling outdoor work each day’, one must further assume that per capita income stats and measurements of human development only reflect the situation of actual Qatari nationals.
The Guardian ran an article on 29 December pointing out the shocking fact that, in spite of ‘brutal working conditions and flagrant abuse of workers’ rights’, thousands of impoverished Nepalese men queue up each day for the chance to work in Qatar and other Gulf states. Their hope is that they will earn $200 a month for a couple of years, pay back the fee charged by employment agencies back home, and perhaps start a small business or send their children to school on their return.
Protest against treatment of
migrant workers in Gulf States
Living conditions in Nepal are so bad that stories of over-crowded accommodation, starvation rations and non-payment of wages are not sufficient to shorten those queues. The Wikipedia entry mentions Nepal in the same sentence as Rwanda and Bangladesh, stating that nearly 60 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day, with unemployment and underemployment approaching half of the working-age population. More than one third of households do not have a toilet in their house, and less than half have running tap water. ‘Leading diseases and illnesses include diarrhea, gastrointestinal disorders, goiter, intestinal parasites, leprosy, visceral leishmaniasis and tuberculosis.’ Malnutrition is a serious problem: ‘about 47 percent of children under five are stunted, 15 percent wasted, and 36 percent underweight.’ Another Guardian article in June this year described the death of a 12-year-old girl in Kathmandu. The girl, working as a domestic slave for a higher-caste family to repay a debt incurred by her father, had apparently ‘doused herself in kerosene and then set herself alight.’ Such slavery, the article continues, is not at all uncommon.
It’s a sad story, but what can you do? Time ran an article in their Business and Money section last week entitled: ‘How a Starbucks Latté Shows China Doesn’t Understand Capitalism’. The gist was that Chinese are unreasonably complaining because Starbucks charges more for a coffee in Taiyuan than it does in downtown Manhattan – with similar charges made against Nestlé and Danone. The writer says, in essence, that the Chinese should shut up. The answer, as usual, comes down to ‘the bottom line’, which is: Companies will price their products based on what the consumer is willing to pay’ – and if you don’t like the price, don’t buy the product. Big talk, but in this case I suspect capitalism may find its bottom line rationale clashing with its need to tap into the one-and-a-half billion Chinese consumer market.
Nevertheless, that headline did raise another question in my mind: Who actually does understand capitalism? Getting back to that tennis tournament in Doha, the major sponsor is the American multinational oil and gas corporation ExxonMobil – not surprising, I guess, since little old Qatar has the world’s third largest natural gas reserves, as well as a good supply of petroleum. According to Wikipedia, ExxonMobil’s largest shareholder is that paragon of international philanthrocapitalism, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Two members of the current board are a professor of economics at Stanford University and another of management practice at Harvard Business School. Well, that trio at least should have a pretty good grasp of how capitalism works. Certainly their baby looks in rude financial health. As of July 1, 2010, ExxonMobil occupied eight out of 10 slots for Largest Corporate Quarterly Earnings of All Time. Furthermore, it occupies 5 out of 10 slots on Largest Corporate Annual Earnings’.
On the other hand, you yourself may not be as well versed in the philosophy that drives the world economy as the Gates couple and those disinterested academics, so let me give you a couple of pointers. The ExxonMobil bottom line, not surprisingly, does not attach great importance to the environmental health of Planet Earth. That Wikipedia entry lists six major oil spills within continental United States for which the corporation was responsible and whose seriousness they tried to downplay: apart from the Exxon Valdez disaster of March 1989, more recently there have been oil spills in Brooklyn and the Yellowstone River in July 2007, a pipeline spill and benzene leak at Baton Rouge Refinery in April and June 2012 and another oil spill at Mayflower in March 2013. ExxonMobil have been accused of funding organisations disseminating misinformation about the part fossil fuels play in causing global warming. Even the people at Forbes, not generally known for caring about the downtrodden masses, have raised questions of company executives bribing and/or taking kickbacks from the dictatorial regimes of oil-rich nations such as Angola and Kazakhstan.
You might think that, if only out of cynical self-interest, the board of ExxonMobil might want to throw a few of those All Time Highest Quarterly Earnings in the direction of Nepal and its enslaved girl children. Even Rafael Nadal, if he knew what was going on, might be persuaded to donate a portion of his winner’s purse. But clearly the sponsors of tennis and the football World Cup are happy to have their company names and logos broadcast to television sets around the world and accept at face value the Qatari royal family’s hype about the wealth and standard of living of their people. Whatever spin its most ardent proponents try to put on it, capitalism is largely about short-term profit; and concern for future generations, or disadvantaged present-day ones is not a major factor in bottom line accounting.
Another example is the financial sector, in particular, the denizens of Wall St who were credited with causing the global crisis of 2008. In February 2009 President Barack Obama appointed Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to chair a board tasked with advising the administration on matters affecting economic recovery. In January 2010 the board came back with a set of proposals aimed at preventing banks from engaging in the kind of dodgy trading and investing that had led to the financial meltdown. Those proposals, popularly known as the Volcker Rule, and officially as the Dodd-Frank Wall St Reform and Consumer Protection Act (!!!), have been doing the rounds of various ‘agencies’ for the past four years, and are now scheduled to go into effect on 1 April 2014 (any significance in that date, I wonder?).
Clearly those ‘agencies’ have had plenty of time to play with the proposals. According to an articlein Time’s Business pages, the original relatively simple recommendations have been tampered with and expanded to such an extent that ‘The Volcker rule . . . has been turned into Swiss cheese by bank lobbyists’ – on whom their employers spend nearly half a billion dollars a year. The article goes on to say that ‘the biggest banks are even bigger now than they were before the crisis: the eight largest financial institutions in the U.S. control nearly $15 trillion worth of assets, or about 90% of GDP’.
It seems to me one of the big differences between post-modern economies and those in the developing world is the sophistication level of their corruption; the capacity for burying their dirty activities in a legal labyrinth, or exporting them offshore. In between, of course, are the oil-rich newcomers, who just snow the soiled underwear with money and defy the world to criticise.
Take Dubai. I resent it intensely when my plane stops there on the way to Auckland or Sydney. If I want to go there, I’ll buy a ticket – which I will never willingly do. This year I’m going via Malaysia – not lily-white, for sure, but less objectionable than its Middle Eastern Muslim cousin.
The population of that desert oasis is similar to Qatar, with more or less the same ratio of males to females, for pretty much the same reason – more than 70 percent are poor migrant workers from Asia. Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation says,‘Most companies are forcing their workers to live in squalor. An unconscionable number of workers die due to unsafe conditions.’ Workers are ‘effectively living in 21st century slave states,’ she says. According to Al-Jazeera, unions and strikes are illegal. Annual per capita income of citizens in the United Arab Emirates is $48,158, but only 20 percent of the 7.9 million residents have citizenship – almost impossible to get if you can’t prove a paternal blood relationship to the original inhabitants. Women’s rights are reportedly beyond medieval. In Dubai, a woman who reports being raped can be sentenced to over a year of time in prison for ‘engaging in extramarital relations.’
On the other hand, thousands of Western ex-pats, including tennis and rugby players, choose to live, work and play in the UAE, lured by high salaries and a lifestyle they could not afford in their own countries. Apparently adjudicators from the Guinness Book of Records were on hand in Dubai on New Year’s Eve to officially witness the world’s largest ever fireworks extravaganza. The six-minute display is said to have exploded half a million fireworks spread over nearly 100 kilometres of coastline, provided employment for 200 technicians (from US firm Fireworks by Grucci) using 100 computers, and cost $6 million.

In the end, perhaps that’s the real secret of capitalism’s success: blind the ‘haves’ with lavish displays of pyrotechnics, and keep the self-immolating Nepalese slave-girls well out of sight.

The Obscenity of Extreme Wealth

“The gap between rich and poor in OECD countries has reached its highest level for over 30 years, and governments must act quickly to tackle inequality, according to a new OECD report.” Well, that report was released in December 2011. I haven’t seen a recent update, and I don’t know what’s happening in your particular part of the world – but from a purely empirical point-of-view, I’d say governments are dragging their feet on this one.
Take a look at the OECD graph. Now I have to confess I checked out the ‘Gini’ coefficient and gave up trying to understand the maths of it. Still, one thing is clear: the longer your blue line, the greater the inequality of income distribution in your country. So, we understand that, in 1985, Mexico and Turkey led the OECD countries in the extent of the gap between rich and poor; while Sweden and Finland, as we might expect, were tops for relative equality.
New Zealand, Sweden and Finland coming up fast
On the other hand, the little red diamond shows how matters stood by 2008, when the global financial crisis struck. Not surprisingly, the income gap had widened in eighteen of the twenty-two countries – something most of us felt intuitively, if we lacked hard statistical evidence to back up our gut feeling.
“OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said, ‘This study dispels the assumptions that the benefits of economic growth will automatically trickle down to the disadvantaged and that greater inequality fosters greater social mobility.’

“The main driver behind rising income gaps has been greater inequality in wages and salaries, as the high-skilled have benefitted more from technological progress than the low-skilled. Reforms to boost competition and to make labour markets more adaptable, for example by promoting part-time work or more flexible hours, have promoted productivity and brought more people into work, especially women and low-paid workers. But the rise in part-time and low-paid work also extended the wage gap.

“Benefits levels fell in nearly all OECD countries, eligibility rules were tightened to contain spending on social protection, and transfers to the poorest failed to keep pace with earnings growth.

“Another factor has been a cut in top tax rates for high-earners. The OECD underlines the need for governments to review their tax systems to ensure that wealthier individuals contribute their fair share of the tax burden. This can be achieved by raising marginal tax rates on the rich but also improving tax compliance, eliminating tax deductions, and reassessing the role of taxes in all forms of property and wealth.”
Well, nothing very new or revolutionary there. The only really surprising thing is that those at the top-end of the income spectrum keep hogging an obscene share of the world’s wealth, and flaunting it with seeming impunity in the faces of the have-nots.
I recently came across a helpful website for those of you whose disposable income has grown to the embarrassing point where you don’t know what to do with it:
It’s a kind of Lonely Planet guide to shopping for the ludicrously wealthy. If you’re looking for something smart in men’s shoes, you could do worse than check out JM Weston. Their Flore 529 in black lizard skin will help you get rid of £1,775. Still some slack in your shoe budget? What the hell, get a second pair. In need of a watch? Hard to go past the Christophe Claret Soprano Tourbillon with a price tag of £380,400. You’ll find useful links to specialised sites too, where you can pick up, for instance, a nice 750 ml bottle of Courvoisier L’Esprit Champagne cognac for $9,300. Included in the price, apparently, is a hand-cut Lalique crystal decanter. For those with a taste for jewellery and a sensitive conscience, Karen Ellison, founder of Jewels For Humanity, will be happy to help you out. You can relax as you attach your $6,600 cufflinks, clip on your $18,000 earrings, or slip that $185,000 Sea Treasure Octopus ring over your pinkie, knowing that twenty per cent of your dollars will go to a charity of your choice, Diamond-miners Without Borders, for example.
Perhaps your interests run more towards the masculine. Check out Swedish gun and rifle maker VO Vapen. Viggo Olsson, I’m told, constructs the world’s most exclusive handmade hunting rifles. If money’s no object, there’s the H.H. Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque Rifle, priced at $825,000. If you don’t need a rifle when you go to the mosque, a more economical purchase would be the “Big Papa,” at $375,000; or something from the Viking Collection, inspired by Viking mythology and featuring engravings of Norse gods and 24-carat gold inlay at $275,000 apiece. If you’re a little hard up at present, you can pick up a gat from the Royal TD Collection, initially created for H.R.H. Prince Carl Philip Bernadotte of Sweden for a very reasonable $125,000.
To buy a car, though, you really need to get along to a good motor show, such as the one in Geneva, Switzerland. Top of the line this year was the Lamborghini Veneno with a price tag of $US3.9 million. Looking for something hot but just a little cheaper? The new beast from Ferrari may suit. Listed at €1.2 million ($1.62 million), the F150 has a top speed of 370 km/h, and will accelerate from 0-100 km/h in a little under three seconds. The word is that only five hundred will be manufactured and purchase will be by invitation only. Colour choice is Rosso Corsa, Giallo Modena orNero, and if you have to ask what they are, you’re probably not on the list.
Obviously you can’t consider yourself seriously wealthy without a cellar of vintage wine, and those in the know will send their buyer along to Harrods with the aim of picking up a ‘vertical’ of Chateau d’Yquem for around £1 million. Alternatively, folks with an eye for a bargain might chance on a privately assembled antique collection from Christie’s for a similar outlay. I gather The Yquem people maintain their exclusivity by limiting their output, and in fact, in some years, 2012 for example, not producing a vintage at all. 2010, on the other hand, was apparently a good year. Expect to pay around £5000 for a case of 12 bottles.
Still, you can’t be quaffing champagne cognac and vintage wine all the time. Sometimes you just need a coffee, right? No need to rub shoulders with the proles in Starbucks though. Black Ivory is said to be the world’s most exclusive brew, and you can enjoy it, for around $US50 a cup, at the Anantara Dhigu Resort and a couple of other spas in the Maldives, as well as two hotels in Thailand and another pair in Abu Dhabi. If you prefer to brew your own at home, a kilo of the stuff sells for $1,100, hand-cut Lalique crystal coffee pot not included. What’s the deal, you may ask. It’s only coffee, right? Maybe so, but these beans have been passed lovingly through the digestive system of Thai elephants, collected (and carefully washed, we hope) by local women before being packaged and brought to your hotel.
Ah those Arabs! Seems the Muslims are getting the last laugh after all. And what are they doing with the money rolling in from elephant dung coffee and petro-dollars borrowed from China to maintain that non-negotiable American way-of-life? I don’t want to burden you with unnecessary details, but, as a sample, take a look at the yacht ‘Dubai’ owned by Mohammed Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates, and ‘constitutional monarch’ of Dubai. That mother, at 162 metres, is the second largest privately owned yacht in the world (come on, Mo, only the second largest?).
Dubai’s luxurious interior design blends bold colours with fine fabrics and intricately detailed handmade mosaics. A spectacular staircase creates the yacht’s showpiece. Bathed in natural light from the top deck, this dramatic circular staircase features glass steps, which change colour. Dubai’s spacious decks offer a split-level owner’s deck; a large social area including the main lounge with its centrepiece red sofa; numerous VIP and guest suites, and a crew area to accommodate 115 people including crew and guest staff.
With seven decks, Dubai has a wealth of sunbathing areas; a striking mosaic swimming pool and several Jacuzzis. She can accommodate a helicopter of up to 9.5 tonnes and can carry two 10-metre long tenders. Dubai has a displacement of 9,150 tonnes, yet can reach an impressive 26 knots at maximum speed. She has exceptional worldwide capability with a range of 8,500 miles at 25 knots, powered by four MTU diesel engines.
According to, eight of the world’s nine largest private yachts are owned by Arabs.  But it’s not just about yachts. Last summer in Bodrum we were honoured by a visit from Saudi Prince El Velid bin Abdülaziz bin Suud. Well, he didn’t actually stay at our place, of course. He had a yacht anchored offshore for him and his family while they were in town, but they flew in on their private plane, which, incidentally, is not one of your piffling Learjets, but a full-size Boeing 747. It’s a competitive business, being that rich – don’t think it’s all plain-sailing. Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izaddin Wadaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, aka the Sultan, Prime Minister and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei, pretty much sets the standard here for others to follow, with his customised 747-400 and Airbus 340-200. Hassanal Bokiah (you can call him that if you’re short of time) is reputed to have a collection of over 7,000 high performance cars, including 600 Rolls Royces, 300 Ferraris, not to mention assorted Koenigseggs, McLarens, Porsches and other lesser makes.

You probably knew that London’s premier department store Harrods is owned by the royal family of Qatar. Seems they bought it on spec a year or two ago, then a gang of them turned up to check it out in a Lamborghini Murcielago LP670-4 Super Veloce and a customised Koenigsegg CCXR, which they parked on the road outside. Apparently while they were in the store, the egalitarian London Constabulary had the vehicles clamped, so once again the Brits have cause to feel proud of their local bobbies.
Nevertheless, like me, you may be starting to feel a little ashamed of your Western Caucasian Anglo-Saxon Christian brothers and sisters, and to think that somebody, somewhere must be letting the side down. So it’s heartening to know we have people like Petra Ecclestone going in to bat for our side. Ok, I know she’s only the daughter of a rich guy, but you can’t blame a girl for that. And besides, knowing that can give us a better appreciation of the league daddy himself is playing in. Bernie has one other daughter besides young Petra, and we must assume he is not leaving her penniless. Clearly, though, Petra is daddy’s pet, which is why he bought her that mega-mansion in Los Angeles for $85,000,000, said to be the world’s most expensive house. Petra and her husband Jim apparently find the 5700m2chateau ‘quite cosy’, especially after two months of extensive renovations which, we may guess, added a few millions more to the original purchase price. My invitation to their wedding evidently got lost in the mail, but it must have been quite a bash, seeing as it cost daddy £5 million. Petra herself would have looked lovely too, I’m sure, in her £80,000 dress. Maybe she’ll pass it on to her own daughter, when the time comes, for economy’s sake.
But you don’t have to be an heiress, an Arab Sheikh or a Grand Prix mogul to play in the big league. Wage and salary earners (some of them at least) are doing all right these days too. Take Muhtar Kent, for example, the Turkish CEO of the Coca Cola Company. His ‘compensation’ last year was a little under $26 million, down a couple of millions from the previous year, but still competitive. I have to say I never touch that black fizzy stuff, preferring, as I do, Courvoisier L’Esprit. And I avoid their Turkuaz brand bottled water – but I will confess I am partial to their 100% Cappy Orange Juice, so I feel I have, in some small measure, contributed to the maintenance of Mr Kent’s life style.
And now that we have established a Turkish connection, I want to mention our very own construction magnate Ali Ağaoğlu, who dropped into the recent Istanbul Motor Show in his Rolls Royce Phantom Cabrio, reportedly the same model British Queen Elizabeth uses for her shopping expeditions. Strolling around the exhibits, Mr Ağaoğlu’s eye was apparently caught by a bright yellow (or giallo diarrea, if you prefer) Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport, retailing locally for €4.3 million. Looking to fill a gap in his stable of fourteen luxury vehicles, Mr A remarked casually that he might buy one. Can’t confirm whether he actually did or not.
Well, if you’re not totally nauseated by now, glowing emerald green with envy, or filling out an application form to join your local chapter of Anarchist Bombers Incorporated, let me finish the job I have started. A recent news item under the heading ‘Victoria’s Dirty Secret’ claimed that the billion dollar creator of up-market frillies imports much of its raw material from the impoverished African nation of Burkino Faso, where children as young as ten are picking cotton without pay, motivated mostly by fear of the beating they will get if they slacken their pace. Needless to say, a spokesperson (not actually Victoria herself) assured reporters that such practices were strictly contrary to company policy – though stopping short of outright denial. And this, it seems to me, is an aspect of the problem that the OECD commentator above touched on. Adaptable/flexible labour markets these days are lubricated by the outsourcing of factories and suppliers of raw materials to third world countries where labour costs are low because of less stringent (or non-existent) laws protecting worker pay and conditions. Implicit in this is the sad fact that companies using these methods of lowering costs do not care about the welfare of those doing the work – they merely want to know the price of the labour. Maybe Posh Spice truly doesn’t know about those kids in Burkino Faso – but if she really wanted to, she could surely find out.
The other effect of moving labour costs abroad is that you reduce the need for those jobs in your own country, creating a level of systemic unemployment which ensures that those workers with jobs, desperate to keep them, will accept lower pay and reduced conditions. Does anyone still believe in the trickle-down theory of wealth? How much do you think those Thai women earn for picking coffee beans out of elephant droppings so that the obscenely rich can sip their Black Ivoryespresso at an exclusive desert resort in Abu Dhabi? Closer to the booming Dow Jones, my latest Time informs me that an average of 50,000 people a night slept in New York city’s shelters for the homeless in January this year. At least Turkey’s little red diamond is inside the blue line – which means the gap between rich and poor has shrunk since 1985. There’s still work to be done, but it’s a move in the right direction.

Merry Sufi Christmas and a Happy Chinese New Year! – Globalising Religion

First up, I want to wish all my loyal readers (and any new-comers to the fold) health, happiness and prosperity in the New Year, the Year of Our Lord, 2011. Uh oh, hang on a minute – let me adjust that – 2011 CE. It was a measure of the grip globalisation has on us all, that midnight, December 31st was celebrated with parties and festivities from Sydney to Seoul; from Auckland to Amritsar and Allahabad; in Times Square, New York, and Times Square, Hong Kong; that the world’s most expensive Christmas tree was to be found in Abu Dhabi, and the tallest New Year fireworks display, in Dubai, on the 828 metre Burj Khalifa. Even the Chinese joined the party, despite the fact that their new year, the Year of the Rabbit, incidentally, and 4707, 4708, or 4647, depending on who’s counting, will not click over until February 3rd.
Burj Khalifa Tower, Dubai

I kind of liked that. I’ve never been a big capitalist, but you have to respect the power of an idea to bring people together, don’t you! Socialism has been dead and buried for a few years now, and life is getting increasingly difficult for religious fanatics. But Mammon is hard at work out there, binding Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, atheists and reformed Communists into one big happy family. It’s pretty clear that there’s never been an ‘–ism’ like it!

However, in the midst of all the Santa Clauses, Father Christmases, New Year pyrotechnics and what not, another date slipped by pretty much unnoticed . . . the 17th of December. I hope the Sufis among you will forgive my stating the obvious, but that day marked the 737th anniversary of the death of Mevlana Jalal al-din Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, jurist, theologian, philosopher and Sufi mystic, known in the West more simply as Rumi. I have to admit, though, I might have missed the date too, if one of my students hadn’t pointed it out to me. Nevertheless, once it was drawn to my attention, it got me thinking . . .

Those of you who read this column regularly will know how much I love my adoptive home, the Republic of Turkey, and the respect I have for my Muslim brothers and sisters who have become my friends, neighbours and even family. You will perhaps have marvelled that the son of a nation which once joined a military invasion to subdue this land, could have stayed so long, and developed such affection for former enemies. But there it is, and I make no apologies.

Still, if there is one thing I can’t get my head around, it’s the lunar calendar. I’m a firm believer in a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay – but I like holidays, nonetheless. I’m used to my Christmases and Easters and New Years and Labour Days and Queen’s Birthdays, and all that stuff we take as an inalienable human right back in New Zealand. I may have seemed to take it for granted when I was younger, but I have always been grateful to those nameless activists who fought to ensure that, even though no one was exactly sure when Jesus was nailed to that tree, we would get a Friday and a Monday off school or work every year in sympathy. No doubt those in the know always got together on the correct day to cheer Elizabeth Regina as she blew out her birthday candles – but we in New Zealand could always count on the first Monday in June as the day for honouring our sovereign lady queen.

It therefore seems to me that no one would suffer much harm, and the devout could continue to sacrifice and fast, if the Muslim holy times of Ramadan and Eid al-Adha (Kurban Bayram) were similarly fixed, perhaps sometime in autumn and spring. I understand that, for tribes living in a harsh desert environment not much conducive to sowing and harvesting, solar seasons were pretty irrelevant, and the phases of the moon seemed as good a measure of the passing of time as any other. If you can sleep through the heat of a desert day, fasting from dawn till dusk may not be such a trial. If you’re not bound to the five-day working week, it may not matter much if your days of feasting fall on weekends or weekdays. But these days, when we are all, to a greater or lesser extent in the clutches of the above-mentioned Mammon-ism, it makes a big difference. We need to feel that we can plan our lives (including our holidays) and that important festivals will take place at stable and predictable times each year – and, for better or worse, that means the solar year.

Sure, I know what you’re thinking. Those Islamic months are set in stone. God gave the Koran to the Angel Gabriel, who gave it to the Prophet Mohammed, and that’s it, end of story. No amendments, no interpretations, no alterations. Lunar months are ordained by God. The Ramazan month of fasting will start when the ‘Hilal’ crescent at the beginning of the ninth lunar month is spotted by the official ‘spotter’. Any government of a Muslim country that tried to ‘rationalise’ the calendar for the modern world would be committing political suicide. But spare a thought for the poor school kids, who will soon face an academic year without a break because the religious holidays all fall during the summer vacation. What of the employed faithful who will have to work through 30 summer days without letting a sip of water pass their lips? Anyway, with Muslims spread all over the globe, there’s no way that one ‘spotter’ can do the job for the whole community any more.

And there’s another thing – the reason I brought up Mevlana Rumi in the first place, in case you were wondering. Did you notice that date, 17 December, 1273? And did you wonder, as I did, why it wasn’t 6 Jumada al-Thani, 672 A.H.? Well, again, I have to admit, I found a site on the Internet to do the conversion for me, but you get the point I want to make. There was a guy who was born, lived and died a Muslim in important cities in an Islamic empire at a time when that religion was assuredly in the ascendant. Thousands of devout Muslims visit his tomb in the Turkish city of Konya every year. Without doubt, the date on his tombstone would read (if we could read Arabic) 672, and not 1273. Yet every year, around 17 December, a clearly non-lunar date, Muslim Turks welcome the faithful and the interested, to join them in commemorating the passing on of the great Sufi mystic.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m glad to find there is one other ‘–ism’ with an interest in bringing folks together, rather than tearing them apart. I don’t want to get into the debate about whether Islam is a religion of war or peace. It seems to me that, depending on where you’re starting from, you could argue either way, just as you could for most other religions and ideologies.

Mevlana Rumi, however, was ‘. . . not a Muslim of the orthodox type. His doctrine advocates unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love. To him and to his disciples all religions are more or less truth. Looking with the same eye on Muslim, Jew and Christian alike, his peaceful and tolerant teaching has appealed to [people] of all sects and creeds.’

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) organised events to commemorate, in 2007, the 800th anniversary of the birth of Mevlana Rumi. They did this because they believed that his ideas and ideals coincided with the ideals of UNESCO, which you can find on their website:

UNESCO works to create the conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples, based upon respect for commonly shared values. It is through this dialogue that the world can achieve global visions of sustainable development encompassing observance of human rights, mutual respect and the alleviation of poverty, all of which are at the heart of UNESCO’S mission and activities.
UNESCO’s mission is to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information.

Pretty good stuff, you have to admit. And if Rumi believed in that, then I’m with him, even if he was a Muslim.