2 December 2011
9 August 2011
10 July 2011
Three days ago was the six year anniversary of the London bombings. The anniversary passed relatively quietly – except for the appalling revelation that News of the World journalists had hacked into the phones of relatives of the 7/7 victims. Curiously, Scotland Yard seemed to have known about the hacking long ago, according to Graham Foulkes, whose son David was killed in the attacks. Further revelations that up to five Metropolitan Police officers had received bribes totalling £100,000 from the paper underscored the extent to which police corruption had facilitated the scandal
Ten days from now comes another anniversary – much less well-known, but nevertheless worthy of our attention – the five year anniversary of the detention without trial of a young British Muslim, Talha Ahsan. I first learned about Talha’s case around 2007, when I went to pick up my father and stepmother from their friend’s house in South London. It was late Friday evening, but I’d managed to find parking near the house.
When the front door opened, I was greeted by a mild-mannered elderly gentleman, Mr. Ahsan. He led me upstairs to where my dad was already seated with his wife, and I was offered tea and a delectable assortment of Indian sweets by Mrs. Ahsan. My dad introduced me as an author and mentioned my then-new book, The London Bombings: An Independent Inquiry (Duckworth, 2006), in which I had challenged the British government’s account of its policies before and after the 7/7 terrorist atrocities. The topic immediately struck the interest of our host, and I quickly learned all about what had happened to their son Talha.
Read the rest at Ceasefire...
16 February 2011
As it is, the converging effects of population growth, climate change and energy depletion look set to make the physical scarcity of water a greater problem than ever. The Middle East and North Africa are particularly vulnerable, accounting as they do for 6.3% of the world’s population but only 1.4% of its renewable fresh water. And three-quarters of the region’s available fresh water is in just four countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Twelve of the 15 most water-scarce nations in the world – with an average of less than 1,000 cubic metres of fresh water per person per year – are also to be found in this region, namely Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Israel and Palestine. And in eight of these countries, available fresh water is less than 250 cubic metres.
Water consumption in the region is linked overwhelmingly to industrial agriculture. From 1965 to 1997, Arab population growth drove demand for agricultural development, leading to a doubling of land under irrigation. In countries with less agriculture or industry, like Kuwait, water is largely used for domestic purposes.
But demographic expansion in all these countries is set to dramatically worsen their predicament. Although birth rates are falling, a third of the overall population is below 15 years old, and large numbers of young women either are or soon will be reaching reproductive age. The Ministry of Defence in the UK has projected that by 2030 the population of the Middle East will have increased by 132%, and that of sub-Saharan Africa by 81%, generating an unprecedented “youth bulge.”
The Water Sector Assessment Report on the Gulf countries expects that the availability of fresh water is likely to halve because of these demographic pressures, and the risk is that this will exacerbate the danger of inter-state conflicts over declining freshwater supplies. Competition to control water has already played a key role in the region's geopolitical tensions, for instance, between Turkey and Syria; Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority; Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia; as well as Saudi Arabia and its neighbours, Qatar, Bahrain, and Jordan. A halving of available water supplies due to population growth over the next 20 years could all too easily intensify these tensions and turn them into open military hostilities.
A recent study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggests that water scarcity would also trigger social unrest within national borders, because of water’s important cultural and symbolic function in underpinning the social contract in the Arab world. Underground water supplies are being heavily depleted by their use in irrigating deserts, a situation which could exhaust them completely as local populations double or more in size. While economic growth, accompanied by greater urbanisation, migration to urban areas, and higher per capita incomes has been translated into greater demand for freshwater, the population movements that have resulted are now exacerbating local ethnic tensions.
“If the water goes away, then suddenly the whole deal that holds the government together goes away”, warns John Alterman, the CSIS Middle East director. He adds that this could undermine state legitimacy, radicalise ‘identity politics’ and lead to civil disorder and even state-failure. “It is a fundamental problem", he says, "for these governments and the people who live under them.”
Climate change and energy depletion are likely to further amplify these dangers. Many of the region’s irrigation systems are already under environmental strain because of salinity or over-exploitation of groundwater. From 1974 to 2004, the Arab world experienced rises in surface air temperature ranging from 0.2C to 2C, and forecasting models generally project a hotter, drier, less predictable climate that could produce a 20-30% drop in water run-off in the region by 2050, mainly due to rising temperatures and lower precipitation.
As early as 2015, the average Arab will be forced to survive on less than 500 cubic metres of water a year, a level defined as severe scarcity. Shifts in rainfall patterns will certainly affect crops, particularly rice. A "business-as-usual model" for climate change suggests global average temperatures could rise by 4°C by mid-century, and this would devastate agriculture in the Middle East and North Africa, with crop yields perhaps falling by 23-35% with weak carbon fertilisation, or 15-20% with strong carbon fertilisation.
The worldwide cost of infrastructural development capable of responding to the intensifying water crisis could amount to trillions of dollars, and even then the creation of this new infrastructure would itself be energy intensive and would therefore only mitigate the impact of scarcity on richer countries.
Hydrocarbon energy depletion is due to complicate matters even more. In its latest "World Energy Outlook" for 2010 the International Energy Agency (IEA) argued that conventional oil production worldwide most probably peaked in 2006, and is now progressively declining. This conclusion certainly fits the latest production data, which shows that world oil production, has been undulating but gradually declining since around 2005. Yet the IEA also argued that the shortfall will be made up from greater exploitation of unconventional oil and gas sources, albeit at far higher prices because of the greater environmental, energy and extraction costs.
The bad news is that the IEA’s optimism about unconventional sources could be fundamentally misplaced. The six biggest Middle East oil producing countries officially hold around 74bn barrels (Gbs) of proven oil reserves between them. But British geologist Euan Mearns of Aberdeen University notes that published reserve data puts the most likely size of these reserves at only around 350 Gbs. And the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, found in a study for Energy Policy that official world oil reserves had been overstated by up to a third – implying that we are on the verge of a major ‘tipping point’ in oil production. Other studies by Sweden's Uppsala University, Reading and Newcastle Universities in the UK and Boston University in the U.S. suggest that the energy return on energy invested (EROI) of unconventional oil and gas sources, even accounting for technological advances, will be too small to mitigate peak oil.
All this means not only that the era of cheap oil is over, but that within the next decade or so major oil producing countries will increasingly struggle against costly, below-ground geological constraints.
If that proves to be the case, then by 2020, perhaps as early as 2015, the contribution of Middle East oil to world energy consumption could become negligible. That in turn would mean a catastrophic loss of state revenues for what are now the major Arab oil producing countries, rendering them highly vulnerable to the converging impacts of existing water shortages, rapid demographic expansion, climate change induced-droughts and declining crop yields.
This worst-case scenario is not inevitable, but there is only a very short window of opportunity for policies to change the situation. Revising water conservation, management and distribution efforts that have been neglected can reduce water consumption and increase efficiency, but these need to be combined with radical efforts to speed the transition away from oil dependence to a zero-carbon renewable energy infrastructure. Furthermore, concerted investments in health, education and citizens' rights, especially for women, are the key tools for alleviating population growth in the region, and unless Arab governments pursue these policy measures urgently they are unlikely to survive beyond the first quarter of this century.
6 February 2011
Cameron’s recognition that we should acknowledge the dangers of extremist ideology, and the need to tackle it head-on, is welcome. His call for a social vision that young British Muslims can feel part of, to overcome the sense of rootlessness which can make a minority of them vulnerable to extremist recruitment, makes eminent sense. And his condemnation of the divisive impact of segregated communities, along with state support for groups with backward ideas about women and society, is certainly important – though hardly groundbreaking.
The devil, unfortunately, is in the details. By pinpointing the root cause of terrorism as an amorphous “state multiculturalism”, Cameron reveals that his government’s understanding of the problem is as simplistic as his predecessors.
The actual background of those already convicted on terrorism charges undermines his suggestion that the government should attempt to crack-down on 'non-violent extremists' – an undefined category that could include anyone from climate protestors, to student dissidents, to civil liberties campaigners. Over a third of terrorism convictions between 1999 and 2009, and every single major terrorist plot in the UK including 7/7, were linked to the extremist network formerly known as al-Muhajiroun. Yet despite being proscribed, the network has never been fully investigated by police. Many of its leaders roam free despite a track record of flagrantly inciting to violence, while its spiritual leader, Omar Bakri Mohammed, was allowed to escape to Beirut despite confessing to having advanced warning of al-Qaeda plans to bomb London. Worse, the court records of the fertilizer bomb plot trial showed that another individual Mohammed Quayyum Khan, also known as ‘Q’, was an al-Qaeda ‘go-between’ who recruited the leaders of that plot and the 7/7 mission – yet inexplicably remains at large.
As former Justice Department prosecutor John Loftus has noted, the fact that al-Muhajiroun had disturbing links with British security services in the Balkans during the late 1990s, as well as with repressive Western client-regimes abroad such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, among others, may well explain this reticence. Our links with militant Islamists during this period was motivated by the desire to use them to access strategic oil supplies in Central Asia and elsewhere, according to whistleblowers like former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds – whose testimony before the 9/11 Commission and U.S. Congress is so embarrassing for the U.S.-led ‘War on Terror’ it has been retroactively classified.
These links are compounded by an interventionist foreign policy programme that has been heavily disfigured under the influence of short-sighted (and self-interested) U.S. geostrategy in the Muslim world. As both internal Home Office and Joint Intelligence Committee reports have conceded, Britain’s unquestioning allegiance to U.S. hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East and Central Asia has been counterproductive. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, for instance, the radicalization of the insurgency has accelerated in direct proportion to NATO’s troop surge, and ceaseless civilian casualties from indiscriminate U.S. airstrikes have inflamed local grievances, while failing utterly to meet even the most elementary requirements of the national interest.
Our U.S.-hijacked foreign policy has also poured fuel on the fire for extremist recruiters at home, who point to our interventionism abroad as ample evidence of an anti-Muslim agenda; which is then made worse by domestic policies that reinforce the structural problems prevailing in many British Muslim communities.
For instance, Cameron overlooks how government policies have intensified British Muslim social exclusion. The dogmatic adherence to neoliberal principles pursued by both Tory and Labour governments, continuing under the coalition regime, have widened inequalities in the UK with debilitating consequences for the working class from both white and ethnic minority communities. Consequently 69 per cent of British Muslims of South Asian background live in poverty, compared to 20 per cent of white people. Meanwhile, questionable and sometimes institutionally racist local authority housing policies have systematically housed white and ethnic minority communities in segregated areas of the same cities. The upshot is that Muslims in Britain are now overrepresented in poor housing, unemployment, low educational achievement, and in prisons.
But Cameron has already been warned that his own economic policies will make this sense of exclusion even worse. As was revealed by equalities secretary Theresa May’s letter of June last year to Chancellor George Osborne, senior ministers are well aware that the coalition’s cuts would likely widen social inequalities, such that “women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and older people will be disproportionately affected.”
Of course, poverty by itself does not cause extremism, but on this scale feeds the sense of a separate identity. Crucially, this even afflicts more upwardly-mobile groups who often remain painfully aware of the unresolved problems in their wider communities. This was revealed in the path-breaking research of Quintan Wiktorowicz – now the White House senior director for global engagement at the U.S. National Security Council. Even more surprisingly, Professor Wiktorowicz, a former academic and author of the book Radical Islam Rising, found from his hundreds of interviews with British Islamists – many linked to al-Muhajiroun – that religious identity is not the root cause of violent radicalization. On the contrary, while very religious Muslims were the most resistant to radicalization, he found that those who did not have a strong grounding in Islam were most at risk of being attracted by Islamist extremism.
Perhaps even more counter-intuitively, despite entrenched social exclusion, studies show that British Muslim communities are largely integrated into British social and cultural life. A 2009 Gallup poll found that while only half the general British population identifies strongly as British, 77 per cent of Muslims in the UK identify very strongly as British, with 82 per cent affirming themselves as loyal to Britain. Although employment levels for British Muslims are at only 38 per cent, British Muslims have a higher confidence in the judiciary than the general public, and 67 per cent of them want to live in a neighbourhood that has a mix of ethnic and religious people – compared to 58 per cent of the general British public
The danger is that by blaming “state multiculturalism”, Cameron is not simply barking up the wrong tree, but undermining the good-will on both sides of the fence. As economic inequalities deepen under the impact of the coalition’s ill-conceived economic prescriptions, social cohesion will be challenged. Meanwhile, his speech will be exploited both by militant Muslims to vindicate their claims that the state is the avowed enemy of Islam, and by far-right extremists to legitimize their vendetta against minority and Muslim communities. Rather than dealing with the root causes of terrorism, this only makes our predicament far more volatile.
By blaming our longstanding celebration of diversity – a uniquely British value that stands us out from our European neighbours – Cameron is targeting precisely the principles that make our country strong. If he really wants to deal with the scourge of Islamist extremism, he would do well to focus on encouraging the authorities to investigate and prosecute individuals linked to groups like al-Muhajiroun who remain at large despite breaking the law; on re-evaluating a U.S.-centric foreign policy that has empowered Islamists abroad who support extremists at home in the name of oil and geopolitics; and on addressing the social problems that working class communities of all ethnic and religious backgrounds are experiencing due to the bankrupt economic policies of successive British governments.
1 February 2011
As first published at The Learning Machine
The toppling of dictator Ben Ali in Tunisia in the wake of mass protests and bloody street clashes has been widely recognized as signifying a major transformation in the future of politics and geopolitics for the major countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). There is little doubt that the Tunisian experience triggered the escalation of unprecedented protests in Egypt against the Mubarak regime. The question on every media pundit’s lips is, ‘Will events in Tunisia and Egypt have a domino effect throughout the Arab world?’
The potential fall of Hosni Mubarak is serious stuff. As The Economist points out, Egypt is “the most populous country in the Arab world”, viewed by the U.S., Britain and West as “a strategic pivot” and a “a vital ally” in the ‘War on Terror’. No wonder then that activists across the world are holding their breath in anticipation that one of the world’s most notorious dictators, and one of the West’s most favoured client-regimes, might be overthrown.
What is happening in Tunisia and Egypt, however, is only a manifestation of a deeper convergence of fundamental structural crises which are truly global in scale. The eruption of social and political unrest has followed the impact of deepening economic turbulence across the region, due to the inflationary impact of rocketing fuel and food prices. As of mid-January, even before Ben Ali had fled Tunis, riots were breaking out in Algeria, Morocco, Yemen and Jordan – the key grievances? Rampant unemployment, unaffordable food and consumer goods, endemic poverty, lack of basic services, and political repression.
Global Food Crisis: 2011
In many of these countries, certainly in both Tunisia and Egypt, tensions have simmered for years. The trigger, it seems, came in the form of food shortages caused by the record high global prices reported by the FAO in December 2010. The return of high food prices two to three years after the 2008 global food crisis should not be a surprise. For most of the preceding decade, world grain consumption exceeded production – correlating with agricultural land productivity declining almost by half from 1990-2007, compared to 1950-1990.
This year, global food supply chains were again “stretched to the limit” following poor harvests in Canada, Russia and Ukraine; hotter, drier weather in South America cutting soybean production; flooding in Australia, wiping out its wheat crops; not to mention the colder, stormier, snowier winters experienced in the northern hemisphere, damaging harvests.
So much of the current supply shortages have been inflicted by increasingly erratic weather events and natural disasters, which climate scientists have long warned are symptomatic of anthropogenic global warming. Droughts exacerbated by global warming in key food-basket regions have already led to a 10-20 per cent drop in rice yields over the last decade. By mid-century, world crop yields could fall as much as 20-40 per cent due to climate change alone.
But climate change is likely to do more than generate droughts in some regions. It is also linked to the prospect of colder weather in the eastern US, east Asia and northern Europe – as the rate of Arctic summer sea-ice is accelerating, leading to intensifying warming, the change in atmospheric pressure pushes cold Arctic air to the south. Similarly, even the floods in Australia could be linked to climate change. Scientists agree they were caused by a particularly strong El-Nino/La-Nina oscillation in the Tropical Pacific ocean-atmospheric system. But Michael McPhaden, co-author of a recent scientific study on the issue, suggests that recently stronger El-Ninos are “plausibly the result of global warming.”
The global food situation has been compounded by the over-dependence of industrial agriculture on fossil fuels, consuming ten calories of fossil fuel energy for every one calorie of food energy produced. The problem is that global conventional oil production has most likely already peaked, having been on an undulating plateau since 2005 – and forecast to steadily and inexorably decline, leading to higher prices. Although oil prices dropped after the 2008 crash due to recession, the resuscitation of economic activity has pushed up demand, leading fuel prices to creep back up to $95 a barrel.
The fuel price hikes, combining with the predatory activities of financial speculators trying to rake-in profits by investing in the commodity markets, have underpinned worldwide inflation. Just as in 2008, the worst effected have been the poorer populations of the South. Thus, the eruption of political unrest in Egypt and elsewhere cannot be fully understood without acknowledging the context of accelerating ecological, energy and economic crises – inherently interconnected problems which are symptomatic of an Empire in overstretch, a global political economy in breach of the natural limits of its environment.
Indeed, Egypt is particularly vulnerable. Its oil production peaked in 1996, and since then has declined by around 26 per cent. Since the 1960s, Egypt has moved from complete food self-sufficiency to excessive dependence on imports, subsidized by oil revenues. But as Egypt’s oil revenues have steadily declined due to increasing domestic consumption of steadily declining oil, so have food subsidies, leading to surging food prices. Simultaneously, Egypt’s debt levels are horrendous – about 80.5 per cent of its GDP, far higher than most other countries in the region. Inequality is also high, intensifying over the last decade in the wake of neoliberal ‘structural adjustment’ reforms – widely implemented throughout the region since the 1980s with debilitating effects, including contraction of social welfare, reduction of wages, and lack of infrastructure investment. Consequently, today forty per cent of Egyptians live below the UN poverty line of less than £2 a day.
Due to such vulnerabilities, Egypt, as with many of the MENA countries, now lies on the fault-lines of the convergence of global ecological, energy and economic crises – and thus, on the frontlines of deepening global system failure. The Empire is crumbling. The guarded official statements put out by the Obama administration only illustrate the disingenuous impotence of the U.S. position.
While Vice-President Joe Biden insisted that Mubarak is not a dictator, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama lamely condemned “violence” and voiced moral support for the right to protest. The slightly muted response is understandable. For the last 30 years, the U.S. has supported Mubarak’s brutal reign with economic and military assistance – currently providing $1.3 billion a year in Foreign Military Financing (FMF). The U.S. Congressional Research Service reports that additionally:
“Egypt benefits from certain aid provisions that are available to only a few other countries. Since 2000, Egypt’s FMF funds have been deposited in an interest bearing account in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and have remained there until they are obligated... Egypt is allowed to set aside FMF funds for current year payments only, rather than set aside the full amount needed to meet the full cost of multi-year purchases. Cash flow financing allows Egypt to negotiate major arms purchases with U.S. defense suppliers.”
The U.S. also happens to be Egypt’s largest bilateral trading partner. It is “one of the largest single markets worldwide for American wheat and corn and is a significant importer of other agricultural commodities, machinery, and equipment.” The U.S. is also the second largest foreign investor in the country, “primarily in the oil and gas sector.”
Perhaps Biden’s denial of Mubarak’s dictatorial qualities are not that difficult to understand. Since the assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat in 1981, Egypt has officially been in a continuous “state of emergency,” which under a 1958 law permits Mubarak to oversee measures unnervingly similar to the USA Patriot Act – indefinite detention; torture; secret courts; special authority for police interventions; complete absence of privacy; and so on, ad nauseum. Not to mention the fact that inequality in the U.S. is actually higher than in Egypt.
Friends of the Family
Yet ultimately, the U.S. administration cannot absolve itself. Successive State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Egypt, while still conservative, catalogue the litany of routine police-state repression inflicted on the civilian population over the last decade by Mubarak’s security forces. When asked about the shocking findings of the 2009 report, Clinton herself downplayed the implications, describing Mubarak and his wife as “friends of my family.” So it is not that we do not know. It is that we did not care until the terror became so unbearable, that it exploded onto the streets of Cairo.
Egypt is central among a network of repressive Arab regimes which the British and Americans have actively supported since the early twentieth century to sustain control of cheap oil “at all costs”, as Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd noted in 1956, as well as to protect Israel. Declassified British Foreign Office files reviewed by historian Mark Curtis show that the Gulf sheikhdoms were largely created by Britain to “retain our influence,” while police and military assistance would help “counter hostile influence and propaganda within the countries themselves” – particularly from “ultra-nationalist maladies”. The real danger, warned the Foreign Office in 1957, was of dictators “losing their authority to reformist or revolutionary movements which might reject the connexion with the United Kingdom.”
No wonder then that the chief fear of Western intelligence agencies and corporate risk consultants is not that mass resistance might fail to generate vibrant and viable democracies, but simply the prospect of a regional “contagion” that could destabilize “Saudi oil fields.” Such conventional analyses, of course, entirely miss the point: The American Empire, and the global political economy it has spawned, is unravelling – not because of some far-flung external danger, but under the weight of its own internal contradictions. It is unsustainable – already in overshoot of the earth’s natural systems, exhausting its own resource base, alienating the vast majority of the human and planetary population.
The solution in Tunisia, in Egypt, in the entire Middle East, and beyond, does not lay merely in aspirations for democracy. Hope can only spring from a fundamental re-evaluation of the entire structure of our civilization in its current form. If we do not use the opportunities presented by these crises to push for fundamental structural change, then the “contagion” will engulf us all.
Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London. He is author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), which inspired the forthcoming documentary film, The Crisis of Civilization (2011).
28 January 2011
4 January 2011
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