Friday, June 29, 2012

A movie about the Middle East

One of my many interests when it comes to foreign affairs is to see how the 'weapons' of soft power are used in order to send messages and build perceptions about countries and regions of the world. Of course that  not all or rather most part of those representations are not innocent, but my interest is to understand where the wind goes.
For instance, I've spent a lot of time watching Cold War movies - will start writing about very soon about some of them - but I discovered that there were not too many movies about the Middle East. Thus, when I've discovered The Prince of Persia at my local library, I couldn't wait to see this Hollywood production. A couple of days before the new sanctions against the Iranian oil, I was almost sure that at the end of the 100 minutes of the movie I will have at least a new idea about his mysterious country. 
However, nothing happened by far. The movie is the story of the powerful kingdom of Persia - a description that fits very well the way in which many Iranians introduce their own history - trying to expand its influence and enrich their conquests. Prince Dostan - played by Jake Gyullenhaal - is adopted when a child by the powerful King Sharaman impressed by the courage and strength of the then child (it reminds me of more than one popular story from the Middle East, maybe the 1001 nights). Dostan grows up and he will lead successfully the siege against the city of Alamit. The entire conquest is in fact set up by the uncle who wanted a mystical dagger that could give him the supreme power to turn the time back. If the uncle would have the dagger he will be able to do not save his brother in danger of death as a child and thus he will be automatically the one and only King of Persia.
The movie has a lot of action, romance and many video-game suspense. In fact, the source of inspiration of the movie was a game with the same name, very popular in the 1990s. You will have a lot of conspirations and cruelty and it is how we often perceive the politics in this area - and the politicians from the area are doing their best to confirm this image; if you do not believe, think about what is going on in Syria right now. But in comparison with the usual Middle Eastern tragedies, the movie has a happy ending and the brave prince Dastan fought the sources of evil and will save the world from evil. 
More than 90%, the movie is predictable - to be read, boring. For me, one of the interesting apparitions was the group of Hassanassins, apparently an Islamic sect. They are mentioned around 1092 and were considered a secret order of killers originary from the current territory of Iran and Syria, that used to consume hashish (maybe qath as well)– their name is a transliteration of their hobby which increased their cruelty. This is the popular version, but they were subject of academic studies. Dastan will fight them all, but since I've seen the movie, I am more than curious to find out more if there are any descendants of the old assassins in the present-day problematic Middle East.
The final recommendation: if you have something more interesting to do - as for example, reading about the assassins, you better don't waste your time with this movie. 

Book Review of the Week: The amazing story of Nojoud Ali

Do you remember what were your favourite ways to spend your time when you were a 10yo? Especially as a girl, you must probably have a lot of time to play with your dolls.  Most probably, only a few of you found out that they should leave school and get married. It is the case of Nojoud Ali, a child from Yemen that was sent out of her family to serve as wife. She dared to escape and fight for her life and with the help of the judges from Sanaa, Yemen's capital city, she succeeded to get the divorce and turned into a role model of fighter for the women's rights and dignity in Yemen
Together with the French journalist Delphine Minoui, a familiar pen for those interested in the Middle East affairs, she published a book about her adventure, translated in more than 20 languages. It is an easy read, very direct and with a lot of food for thought. Children's marriages are a reality in many rural areas in the Middle East and Africa, and Yemen especially was the subject of late reports warning about the serious situation of early marriages and disrespect of fundamental rights. It is hard to imagine the consequences of such trauma for the future of the women and, in general, for the Yemeni society as such. 
However, it is impossible to believe that any development and democratic change will be possible in the near future without a clear answer to cases such as the subject approached in this book. Nojoud Ali was a lucky girl and her example could be a source of inspiration for many girls going through the same nightmare. On the other hand, many need help and support and a legislation that will defend them against all those who are abusing their dignity, even though they should be against their parents.
Anyone who is interested in the issue of human rights should read this book and better appreciate the gifts of our Western world.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

China's redefining role in the world

Shortly after Dambisa Moyo published The Dead Aid, I was more than happy to read it and review it on the blog. I highly appreciated the direct way of documenting the naked truth of the obvious wrong policies of resources in Africa. 
Her newest book - that I did not read it - deals with one of the big questions of the civilizations: China. Yesterday, I visited a big bookstore and was impressed by the impressive number of books dedicated to the mysterious China and the permanent questioning, without too much answering, about the reasons and explanations of the survival of the social and political systems and the success of the Chinese economy in the new global economic order. 
As part of the launching tour of her book - Winner Take All: China's Race for Resources and What it Means for Us, she gave an interesting lecture yesterday at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. According to her interpretation, China moved wisely by attracting neglected trade partners of the West - as Brazil and other Latin American countries as well as African countries, rich in various natural resources. What is very challenging in this approach, an aspect outlined by Moyo, is that China's interests in those countries are purely economic, without any 'colonization' tendencies. A lesson to be analysed further by sociologists and anthropologists as well soon.
Today seems to be for me China's day and I continued the lecture with a fresh new released report by The European Council on Foreign Relations exploring the grassroots social and political changes .
At least from my point of view, I am very far away from a global and coherent understanding of China, even though I am passionate about this country for a long time. The history and culture could bring some light, but it is only the beginning of the understanding process. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Putin in Israel

Stratfor's on the recent visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Israel, with interesting insights about Syria and the recent tensions in the region.
To be continued

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What's wrong with the international organizations

Honestly, I never understood and fully accepted the idea of rotation of the chairmanship-in-office, either it is about the famous UN Human Rights Commissions, where the champions of oppressions as Libya, Iran or Cuba were the proud chiefs despite their deep despise about such issues.
But the UN is not, by far, the only place where such abnormalities can happen. Take, for instance the case of the OSCE, an organization fighting for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Ukraine, the president during 2013, announced today its agenda. An important player in the region, mainly in solving the Transdniestr conflict, Ukraine is at the same time a country with a problematic democratic record. What about the NATO member Turkey, where in the last years the human rights situation deteriorated permanently? Or the EU and NATO member Hungary from where you can read almost daily news about the far right?
Democracy is mostly an idea and from the practical point of view we must rather talk about various democratic options and solutions instead that a single democratic standards. But, at least from the theoretical point of view, democracy is always endangered by corruption, racism and lack of proper separation of the powers. 
The current institutional system stressing the equal rights of the countries only because they are countries is not only unfair but counterproductive and diminishes the legitimacy of the entire institutional system as such.

The news from Greece

I spent the evening of the elections in Athens together with some friends that know and care about Greece. A lot of emotions and permanent Internet checking of the preliminary results. At the end of the day, the New Democracy Party and The Socialist PASOK announced their intentions to form a new government and the discussions continue till today as the two parties have rather a history of discontent than of cooperation. Keen to maintain their political support the representatives of the two parties will most likely prefer to renegotiate the terms of the bailout, despite the warnings of Germany that no change will be accepted.
But, regardless of the result, I was sure that the real danger will remain, regardless of the final result of the elections. More specifically, the danger is represented by the far-right. Although there were many worrying signs about what is going on in Greece, only very late in the process the public intellectuals decided to coalesce against. However, I strongly support this appeal symbolically called We are all Greek Jews. In Hungary, Ukraine, in the Balkans, France and elsewhere people should take stances and find a way to counter the far right until it is not too late.
When it comes to Greece, we should consider that it is a small country, without a vibrant economy, but with a very bad record of management of the public institutions and a problematic democratic past. Isn't it ironic that the so-called cradle of democracy nurtured a lot of anti-democratic ideas in more or less recent times? On the other hand, we should carefully watch the situation in other countries, facing bigger and with even deeper structural problems, as Spain, Portugal, some new EU Eastern European countries and, who knows whom - except Germany. And more than keeping a careful eye for the economic issues, all those interested in democracy should find a way to support better democracy from its detractors.
Meanwhile, Frau Merkel is getting ready to attend the Greece-Germany football game in the historical Polish city of Gdansk, but regardless of the results, nothing will change the current worrisome situation in Greece. 

The book recommendation of the week: Day of Honey, by Annia Ciezadlo

As a passionate reader of almost any kind of books, when it comes to the issue of foreign affairs and international relations in general, I am a lot interested in the side of 'soft power diplomacy'. I love in-depth analysis and interviews and strong statements, but I discover that besides the political arena it is much more life than we expect. 
This is the case with Annia Ciezadlo's book, the Day of Honey, described as a 'memoir of food and love'. She is a journalist by profession, with a multicultural background, that follows her husband originary from Lebanon in the Middle East and ends up by falling completely in love with the area, mainly with its food and warm people. 
After more than 6 years of direct experience in the area, she is able to better understand the politics - or to despise the politics completely - starting from her experience in the lifestyle of the area. Because food plays an important role in this respect, the lecture of the book will reveal you a very simple yet not enough explored aspect of the art of cooking: it is a very powerful public diplomacy weapon that can turn bridges into windows of opportunity for a new perspective. 
As in the case of sports, we should not overestimate the value of food: mainly in the Middle East, the delicious plates could be as well weapons in a symbolic war between nations. But Annia Ciezadlo see the bright side of the dish and explores the cultural habits associated with it in Iraq and Lebanon. 

The ugly side of wars

Wherever it takes place, the war "forces people to concentrate more on sustenance than on taste" and she had the occasion to see such switches of focus during her stays in Iraq and Lebanon. Very diplomatically, she succeeds to escape almost all the usual stereotypes of the writing memoirs of people sympathetic to the region. You will not find in this book propagandistic accusations about the failures of the Bush administration in Iraq or a Hezbollah-like explanation of the war in Lebanon. It was interesting to see how Hezbollah succeeded to win the hearts of so many people during the conflict with Israel in a dysfunctional country without reliable political party able to cope with dysfunctional situations. Otherwise, I am sure that if Lebanon would have been a normal democracy, it was unacceptable that a terrorist organization launch regularly bombs against another country and even kidnap its soldiers. The so-called ‘Party of Gd’ is in fact a group supported by Iran and Syria and driven by hate and destroy the lives of young and educated Lebanese people. Accusing others for the failures of the local elites to provide an alternative to the current situation is the real ‘convenient lie’ that destroys the future of many countries in the region. Countries from the regions should learn how to really love their country and invest more in the education of their children not in the wealth of corrupt religious leaders.

Enjoy your dish

'Home was wherever you broke bread with people you loved' says wisely Annia and I fully agree with it. Our world could be an enjoyable place if before starting the negotiations, the diplomats will stay together at the same dinner table and will share the stories of their cultures and their memories about food. If you are passionate about cultural diplomacy - as I am - you should include this book in your compulsory bibliography. If you are interested in the history of the Middle East, you should do the same. And if you are only looking for a pleasant dish to change your perspective on life after a long diplomatic work, please be careful at the end of the book where you can find many recipes whose preparation will bring you closer from a new universe. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

A world without Ahmadinejad

Ahmadinejad is very popular in the German media, apparently. This weekend, he chose Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung in order to announce that he would be interested in leaving politics at the end of his mandate.
I must confess that every time I have the patience to watch 5 minutes of an interview with Ahmadinejad, I can hardly follow him. I watch his eyes and it is enough to realize that I am not a psychologist enough to understand him. 
On the other hand, his announcement sent a strong message that he almost lost the battle with the religious establishment. Even though the two groups share the same toxic and hate driven ideas about the state of Israel and are oversaturated with anti-Semitism, their economic and political interest may divert. From many respects, until a certain level, Ahmadinejad was the puppet the regime needed in order to install its power over the country, including by using the Revolutionary Guards. But, money do not have colour and thus Ahmadinejad and the religious elites under the control and guidance of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have an increasingly tensed relationship.
The departure of Ahmadinejad will not leave too many traces and unless the educated Iranians will be let free to take their country back, nothing noticeable will happen except a change of the faithful guard. 

Our case for Syria

Did anyone expect good news from Syria? For me, the worst part of the story is represented by the incapacity of almost any ‘famous’ international organization to cope with the situation. The latest bad news from there is represented by the decision of the UN observer team to suspend work in Syria.
In other words, another unsuccessful plan made by Kofi Annan. 
For over a month, Syria is the place where people and especially children are butchered. I do not want to enter now into a dispute about numbers and why it is this happening. What it is known for sure, including by the journalists invited to chew the PR campaign of Mr. Assad, is that people are killed for months. If not such a death-and-life situation, I would like to make a big joke about the appeal of the wives of the EU leaders to the wife of Mr. Assad, in order to contribute to the cessation of the slaughtering. Or on the ban the same EU imposed on luxury products.
It is true that it is not sure who can follow after Assad and as in the case of the Sunday elections in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood or other extreme Islamic party could take the power. Without Assad – to whom the Financial Times dedicated another ‘objective bio’ it is difficult to see what the future is, in a country ruled by relatives and close friends. Most probably, the change of Assad will determine the entire change of the key pawns unless some of them are not already trying to negotiate their future underground.
The current configuration of the region is difficult, with Russia almost desperate to keep a strong foot in Syria, as it used to be. Many of the military and university elites of Syria are well trained and educated in Moscow and most probably Mr. Putin has his own plan at least to save some places in the new configuration of power. Maybe a new Syria will finally leave Lebanon free to get rid of Hizbollah, assiduously paid from the Damascus budget. Without Assad, Iran who has different interests to keep Russia around, will most likely lose a good servant.
By the way, apparently the subject ‘Assad’ is very popular lately as many of the books dedicated to him, not a few of them a pure PR work, can be purchased at impressive prices – over $21 for Kindle. Maybe the decision-makers from Europe are trying hard to understand what is going on there, but I hope their bibliography is not as superficial as it used to be in other cases. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Republican France turns completely on the left?

French voters are called today to choose their MPs in the National Assembly, the lower house of the Parliament. The final results will show at what extent the Socialist President Francois Hollande will be able to coordinate his economic and political policies with a majority of 577-seat legislative branch. According to the latest opinion polls and the results of the last week first round of the legislative election, such a configuration is most likely to occur.This will be the last step of challenging the decade-long domination of the conservatives of the former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Any candidate who won the support of more than 12.5 percent of registered voters in the first round advanced to Sunday's runoff, and many districts have three-way races. According to the latest electoral evaluations, it is expected that the Socialists will occupy 289 out of the 577 seats of the National Assembly.The electoral campaign focused mostly on local issues. Hollande, the first socialist president since Francois Mitterand left the power in 1995, won the presidential elections with a discourse criticizing president Sarkozy budget-tightening, a decision considered as presenting a high-risk of recession. Instead, the Socialists promise to reduce deficit. France, the second-biggest economy in the Eurozone, is expected to play an important role in the next discussions regarding the fate of the euro-zone and of the EU in general, alongside with Germany. On the other hand, Hollande’s position for a government-sponsored stimulus aimed to encourage economic growth was met with opposition from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Hollande will also need to cope with the opposition within its own party whose representatives might have a very strong resistance against various EU packages aimed to help the Southern nations. Thus, the current president should include on his agenda the efforts for keeping the party united.
The final decision of the France voters is observed with attention by the financial analysts, ready to evaluate the immediate effects on the market. France already registered a high spending deficit. The main important steps to be taken shortly after the elections will be: the approval of a legislation aimed to raise taxes, measures to adjust budget spending and the ratification of an EU fiscal discipline pact.Some of the decisions that France supports immediately within the EU is an agreement before the end of 2012 on growth-boosting measures. According to local and international media reports, Paris agreed that a 120 billion euros financial help will be the result of short-term growth instruments – mainly bonds – reallocated EU structural funds and a fresh investment capital from the European Investment Bank. The 120 billion euros would be made up of some 55 billion euros of unused EU structural development funds, some 4.5 billion euros in project bonds for infrastructure projects and 60 billion euros in capital that could be raised by the EIB if it were given an extra 10 billion euros in financing. The French president also wants the euro zone's ESM permanent rescue fund to be given a banking license to allow it to borrow money from the European Central Bank to bolster its firepower. German Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly opposes creating euro bonds in the near term or having Germany underwrite debt or guarantee bank deposits in the euro zone.On the other hand, the current elections marked a new revival of the far right, represented by the anti-immigrant National Front who pledges for the abandon of the euro. Under the coordination of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, the NF placed in the third position during the last presidential elections and on the same position during the first round of the legislative elections. Due to the current legislation, they are not expected to have more than three or four seats, but the FN will be present in the parliament for the first time since the mid-1980s.The final results are expected late Sunday night. Shortly after, Hollande is expected to leave for Mexico, for the G20 Summit.

New succession games in the Saudi royal family

Saudi Crown Prince, Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, 78, died on Saturday in Geneva, Switzerland, a situation that opens the issue of the succession to the throne the second time in less than 12 months

He was the half brother of current King Abdullah, in his late 80s and he was named as Crown Prince last October, following the death of Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Nayef was part of the so-called ‘Sudairi Seven’, a group of the sons of the founder of the Kingdom King Abdulaziz al Saud and one of his wives, Hassa bint Ahmed al-Sudairi. To the same group belongs the Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal and Khaled al Faisal, the governor of Mecca province.

Saudi Arabia is considered one of the West’s most important allies in the region, despite a poor record of human rights, especially when it comes to human rights. Last but not least, the country is considered the one of OPEC’s top producers. On the other hand, Saudi women are not allowed to drive or to be included in the team of the country participating in the Olympic Games.

On the other hand, the country is facing serious economic problems due to the high rate of unemployment, which affects especially the young Saudis.
After 9/11, as Interior Minister, a position he occupied for 37 years, Nayef coordinated the efforts against the local al-Qaeda branch. In his letter of condolences, president Obama hailed Nayef who “dedicated himself to the security of Saudi Arabia as well as security throughout the region”. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague praised his ‘dedication to the prosperity and security of the Kingdom.’

According to media reports, the successor will be designated Nayef’s brother, Defense Minister Prince Salman. The final decision belongs to the Allegiance Council, a body created in 2006, an assembly of 30 male members of the King Abdul-Aziz family, the first Saudi monarch. Salman, 76, served for over 40 years as the governor of Riyadh, a very important position of power both at the local and international level.
On the other hand, it is expected that the representatives of the Western-educated third generation of Saudi prices to move forth in order to take a more important role in the ruling of the kingdom in a more modern way. Salman is a follower of the Wahhabi religious establishment and there are little chances to see a dramatic change during his mandate.

The announcement of the death was made by a Royal Court Statement on the public TV, without addition details about the cause. The funeral is expected on Sunday in Makkah province, after prayers in Mecca. Bahrain and Kuwait announced three days of mourning. During the anti-Governmental protests in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia sent troops aimed to crush the Sunni protests. Saudi Arabia opposed the 1990 Saddam Hussein invasion of Kuweit. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Voting week-end

The world is very busy in the last years, especially after the Cold War was over and the nations and their leaders tried to find their ways to the roads to local and international power.
But the world is even busier in the last weeks and days: from Egypt to the Republican France, going through the craddle of democracy - your guess is right, this stereotypical image applies to Athens - people are called to decide.
It will be a busy week-end, with important consequences for the world.
First, Greece will need to vote for a new Government that will continue the further discussions about the fate of the country in the euro-zone. Also of first importance are the presidential elections in Egypt, where the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood challenges a former military, especially after this week, the Parliament was dissolved. Most probably, the new elections will follow soon. After the first victory of a Socialist candidate for the presidency, France will vote this week-end for its representatives in the legislature. If the majority will be socialist too, Monsieur Hollande will have a good start in an already complicated world.

Later in the day, we will offer analysis about the three cases with updates on Sunday.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Life and death on Twitter

I like to use Storyful from time to time, because it can gather a lot of foreign affairs stories and can outline the main online trends of the day.

For today, I enjoyed reading about the fake Twitter account attributed to the Egyptian Ministry of Home affairs announcing the death of Hosni Mubarak. The news was spread further by Tommasso de Benetti whose aim is to expose the weaknesses of the media. And apparently he succeeded very well by now

TED Talks about the Middle East

I watched this morning two interesting TED discussions about the Muslim world, through the words of two educated women.

First, it is about the attitudes that supposedly determined the 'Arab Spring', a relatively recent talk, outlining optimistically the prospect of Egypt's leadership in the region. 

The second, about Yemen, is from 2011, and mention the common efforts of men and women in fighting for their rights. As in many other countries in the region, the young Yemenis lead the fight and use their Western knowledge - with jeans and English language. The discussion is held by the editor-in-chief of Yemen Times, a publication in English. 

In both cases, it is not very clear what the outcome will be sooner or later. It is important to see the optimistic side of the story when the reality looks dark. The contact with people is very important and very often I was surprised by the highly educated Yemeni people and the creative Egyptian enthusiasm. Even though I might be skeptical about their chances to go further with their dreams, it is important for the moment to know that there are people who dream.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The blogging break is over

We are back! After more than 3 months of vacation, the blog will be updated at least twice the week and as often as possible, with the latest foreign affairs news and analysis. A special post per week will be dedicated to book reviews about foreign affairs and international politics, but especially about the ways in which social media influenced the current management of the diplomatic affairs.

Any writer needs from time to time a little bit of a break. When you are a blogger, you are more exposed than a journalist and a writer together to come up with new information and fresh analysis. Faced with a very busy academic and writing schedule, we took a break but at least once the week we thought lately about the moment when the time will allow a comeback.

The time has come and, sooner than expected, the interesting news will be published, for the wisest lecture of our smart readers. We thank you to all our  readers and promise not to disappoint at all!

ForeignPolicyFocus Team