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Saudi Arabians

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Yemeni Missiles: SSDD

“We must speak with one voice in exposing the regime for what it is – a threat to the peace and security of the whole world,” said US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley last December, trying to drum up support for stronger international sanctions against Iran, and maybe even an actual attack on the country. Here we go again.

Those old enough to remember the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq will recall the deluge of doctored American ‘intelligence’ reports about alleged Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” that were used to justify the attack. ‘Everybody’ was in danger, presumably including Bolivia, Switzerland and Nepal, so everybody must support the invasion.

President George W. Bush wanted to overthrow Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, and the American intelligence services worked overtime to come up with reasons for doing it. We were told that Saddam had been trying to buy ‘yellowcake’ uranium in Niger (false, based on forged documents). The US could not afford to wait for final proof of Saddam’s intentions “in the form of a mushroom cloud”, said President Bush.

And former general Colin Powell, Bush’s secretary of state, showed the United Nations General Assembly a vial containing a powder – harmless, one hopes – in order to emphasise that just a tiny amount of a lethal biological weapon Saddam was allegedly producing would kill gazillions of people. (Powell, basically an honest man, later called the speech a permanent “blot” on his record.)

In the end the United States got its war – and found no evidence whatever of an active Iraqi programme to build weapons of mass destruction. But no lessons have been learned. Ms Haley at the UN was laying a foundation of lies for a comparable Trump adventure in the Middle East. Same Story Different Day.

The story-line goes as follows. Iran is an aggressive and expansionist power that threatens everybody everywhere. The proof is that it is helping the bad guys in Yemen, known as the Houthis, to launch missile attacks on innocent Saudi citizens. In fact, it is actually giving the evil Houthis the missiles.

The Houthis, a large Shia tribe in northern Yemen, are indeed rebels, and they now control most of the country, including the capital. This greatly angered the Saudi Arabians, who installed the previous government in 2012 as a way of shutting down the Arab Spring uprising in Yemen.

The Saudis didn’t like seeing their man overthrown, so they created a nine-country coalition of Sunni Arab states and started bombing Yemen in 2015. According to the UN, at least 8,670 people have been killed and 49,960 injured since the coalition intervened in Yemen’s war. But on 25 March one of the highly inaccurate Houthi missiles killed one person in a suburb of Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

The anti-Iran propaganda machine went into high gear. “This aggressive and hostile action by the Iran-backed Houthi group proves that the Iranian regime continues to support the (Houthi) armed group with military capabilities,” said coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki. And the inimitable Nikki Haley said that the missile “might as well have had ‘Made in Iran’ stickers” on it.

This is the nub of the matter: is Iran actually supplying missiles to the Houthis that are being fired at Saudi Arabia? If so, then the United States, Saudi Arabia’s main ally, has an excuse to attack Iran.

The American accusation basically depends on the ignorant but widespread belief that Yemenis, and in particular Shia rebels from the north, are too ‘backward’ to be able to make or upgrade missiles themselves. But most of the Yemeni armed forces’ weapons, including a variety of short-range ballistic missiles based on the old Soviet ‘Scud’ series, fell into the Houthis’ hands in 2015-16.

None of those original missiles could have reached Riyadh, but extending the range of a simple rocket like the Scud is not rocket science. You just reduce the weight of the warhead and lengthen the body of the rocket to carry extra fuel.

The Houthis have lots of people with metal fabrication and basic engineering skills, and it appears that they did exactly that. The upgraded missile is inaccurate (only one Saudi casualty in at least 40 launches) because lengthening it and lightening the warhead changes the balance, but it cheers the Houthis up because it lets them retaliate for all the bombing.

Jane’s Information Group Ltd, established in 1898, is the world’s leading independent provider of intelligence and analysis on defense matters. Here is what Jeremy Binnie, Middle East/Africa Editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly, said about Yemen’s rockets in 2017 in Jane’s Intelligence Review.

“The Burkan-2 appears to use a new type of warhead section that is locally fabricated. Both Iran and North Korea have displayed Scud derivatives with shuttlecock-shaped warheads, but none of these match the Yemeni version. The range of the Burkan missiles also appears to have been extended by a reduction in the weight of their warheads.”

No nonsense about ‘made in Iran’ stickers. The Yemenis aren’t stupid, and they did it themselves. But the other story suits the Trump administration’s purposes better.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“President…record”)

Qatar Quarantine

Public-spirited businessman Moutaz al-Hayat is flying 4,000 cows into Qatar from the United States and Australia to boost milk supply in his country, which is being blockaded by most of its Arab neighbours in the Gulf. It will take sixty flights, and is definitely not cost-effective. But that may not be his biggest problem.

Ninety-nine percent of Qatar is open desert, and most of the very limited grazing areas for cattle are already fully occupied. Is al-Hayyat also going to airlift in the fodder for his 4,000 cows? There are many ridiculous aspects to the current crisis over Qatar – but it does have a serious side too.

Compared to the real wars (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya) currently raging in the Arab world, Qatar’s crisis is a bit like a tempest in a teapot. The country is tiny but rich, and nobody is getting killed there yet. Yet there is a blockade, and refugees, and troop movements, and it is not inconceivable that the gas-rich Gulf state might get invaded and its government overthrown.

On 5 June all of Qatar’s Arab neighbours in the Gulf withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, Qatar’s gleaming capital. They also cut all land, sea and air communications with the country. Roads were blocked and flights were banned, which is pretty serious for a country of 2.7 million people (only a quarter-million of them actual Arab citizens of Qatar) that produces almost nothing except abundant natural gas.

Qatari citizens visiting or living in Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt were ordered to leave within fourteen days. Qatar Airways lost its landing and overflight rights in those countries, necessitating extensive detours, and the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera television service was blocked.

It is a real blockade because 40 percent of Qatar’s food comes in across its one land border, with Saudi Arabia, and that is now closed. The “refugees” are better dressed and educated than the normal ones, but the ban on Qataris living in the hostile countries and citizens of those countries living in Qatar is already uprooting people and breaking up families.

As for military movements, there have been no reports of Saudi Arabian troops moving towards the Qatari border, like they did before they rolled across the causeway into Bahrein in 2011, but speculation is rife that they might.

The Saudis would love to replace the current Qatari ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, with some member of the royal family who would toe the Saudi line. And since intra-family coups have become a bit of a tradition in Qatar, the Sheikh couldn’t complain if other family members decided that he had become a liability and opted for a Saudi-backed coup.

This is a pretty low-key crisis at the moment, but it could turn much nastier – and there are two further complicating factors. One is that Qatar hosts the biggest US military base in the Middle East: there are 10,000 American troops in the country. The other is that there is also a Turkish military base in Qatar.

The Turkish-Qatari agreement was signed two years ago and there are only about a hundred Turkish soldiers on the base yet, but it will accommodate 5,000 eventually. Turkey could fly the rest in very quickly if it chose to, and it just might do that if the crisis worsens. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has backed Qatar from the start.

Does this mean that Turkey could end up fighting Saudi Arabia in defence of Qatar? It sounds very far-fetched, but things have got so violent and complex in the region that people and countries no longer just stab each other in the back. They are also stabbing each other in the front, the sides, and the unmentionables.

Turkey and Qatar are both close US allies, but they support the same Sunni extremists in the Syrian civil war, and have lavished money and arms on some groups that both the United States and Saudi Arabia see as terrorists (ISIS, the Nusra Front, etc.).

Saudi Arabia, like most of the Sunni-ruled Gulf states, used to support the same extremists. Now it doesn’t any more – or not all of them, anyway – and says it is blockading Qatar because that country does still give money to the “terrorists”.

Whether that is true is debatable, but the Saudi Arabians managed to convince President Donald Trump that it was true during his recent visit to Riyadh, so Trump encouraged this blockade. Indeed, he takes the credit for it.

“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of radical ideology,” he said. “They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to horror of terrorism!”

And they have just founded a “World Center for Countering Extremist Thought” in Riyadh. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Qatari…blocked”; and “The Saudis…coup”)

The Index of Ignorance

To cut to the chase, the five most ignorant countries in the world are Mexico (a world leader at least in this), India, Brazil, Peru and New Zealand. And the five best informed are South Korea (take a bow), followed by Ireland, Poland, China and the United States. Ignorant about what? About the realities in their own country.

Every year the London-based polling organisation Ipsos Mori does its “Perils of Perception” poll, asking people in many countries what they believe about, say, the proportion of the population who are immigrants, or overweight, or over 65, and comparing their answers with the true numbers.

Putting all the results together, Ipsos Mori then comes up with its famous Index of Ignorance. The level of ignorance is startling – and yet these mistaken beliefs can play a big role in the political choices that countries make.

Take immigration. Almost every country over-estimates the number of immigrants in their population, sometimes by huge amounts. The Chinese, for example, believe that 11 percent of the people in their country are immigrants. The real number is 0.1 percent, so their guess is 110 times too high (and maybe just a little paranoid). Brazilians are just as bad: they think 25 percent of the population are immigrants; it’s really just 0.3 percent.

Most countries do better than that, but not that much better. Americans think 32 percent of their population are immigrants, when actually only 13 percent are. The Japanese think it’s 10 percent, when it’s really only 2 percent. And the Poles recently elected a right-wing nationalist government in large part because they fear being overrun: they think 14 percent of the population are immigrants, when it’s really less than half of one percent.

Or take the number of Muslims living in countries that are historically non-Muslim. The highest proportion of the population is in France, where 8 percent are Muslims – but the average guess of the French people polled was 31 percent (and Fox News seems to believe it’s nearly half). Only one percent of Americans are Muslim, but Americans believe it is 15 percent. In Canada it’s 2 percent, but Canadians think it’s 20 percent.

These huge over-estimates are probably driven in part by the fear of Islamist terrorism, which in turn is driven by the media’s fascination with the subject. It’s quite striking, for example, that while Americans guess three times too high when asked about the proportion of immigrants in the country, they guess fifteen times too high when asked specifically about Muslims.

One could go on and on about how wrong people get things. Indians (urban, educated Indians who take part in internet polls) think that one-third of the country’s population is non-religious. In fact, less than one percent is.

Saudi Arabians think that 28 percent of the population are overweight or obese, when actually 71 percent are (the highest proportion of all 35 countries polled). But the more interesting question is: how much do these misperceptions affect politics and policy?

Not much, probably, when we’re talking about religion or obesity or the share of the population that is over 65 years old (which was over-estimated in every country polled). But it’s pretty clear that a huge popular over-estimate of the number of immigrants in Great Britain contributed to the “Leave” victory in last June’s referendum on British membership of the European Union.

But the ignorance often gets a lot of help. London’s population, for example, is more than a third foreign-born: almost 37 percent. But Londoners are quite comfortable with this, and voted strongly for “Remain”. In fact, almost all of the big English cities voted “Remain”. Whereas in suburban and rural parts of England, where immigrants are rare or entirely absent, people were so panicked by immigration that they voted equally strongly for “Leave”.

This was not just a coincidence. For many years a big chunk of the British media, including the country’s three largest-circulation morning papers, the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, has constantly exaggerated the scale of the immigration and the problems it causes. So in parts of England where immigrants are scarce, people don’t believe the evidence of their own eyes; they believe the media instead.

The same phenomenon has played a big part in the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. When he talks about building a wall to stop hordes of Mexican rapists pouring across the southern border of the US, or promises to ban all Muslim immigration to the country, the media-fed misconceptions of Americans about immigrant and particularly Muslim numbers make his lies easier to believe.

There is a chicken-and-egg question here, of course. Are the media just pandering to existing popular fears, or are they actually creating them? The unsatisfactory but inevitable answer is: a bit of both.

In the century and a half when there have been free mass media (and now social media as well), nobody has come up with a solution for this problem. “Free” includes free to make mistakes, and free to distort facts and tell outright lies.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“But the…instead”)

Venezuela and Saudi Arabia: Sharing the Wealth

On Monday, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans began the time-consuming process of validating their signatures on a petition demanding a recall referendum on the elected president, Nicolas Maduro. Food riots are breaking out all over the country, and the capital, Caracas, has the highest murder rate of any city in the world. Many citizens expect a revolution.

Half a world away, Saudi Arabians don’t have to worry about referendums, or indeed about national elections. But no Saudi Arabian citizen goes hungry, and the capital, Riyadh, has a lower murder rate than Toronto. And nobody expects a revolution.

But why compare Venezuela and Saudi Arabia? They don’t have anything in common, do they? Well, actually, they do.

The two countries have the biggest oil reserves in the world, and oil exports account for more than 90 percent of their national incomes. They have about the same population (Saudi Arabia 27 million, Venezuela 30 million), and more than half the adults in each country depend directly on the government for their jobs or at least their income. But one country is rich and one is poor. Why?

The Venezuelan oil boom started back in the 1930s, but very little of the money reached the poor majority. Saudi Arabia only started earning real money from its oil in the 1960s, and the ruling al-Saud family got very, very rich – but they did ensure that enough money trickled down to raise the living standards of the whole population.

By the 1990s almost every Saudi citizen had a decent home, ample food, and access to education and health care. Less than half of Venezuela’s population did, so in 1998 the radical ex-military officer Hugo Chavez was elected president and began to carry out what he called the “Bolivarian Revolution”.

It was really just what the Saudi Arabian regime had been doing for decades already, dressed up as “socialism”. Chavez’s regime created fake jobs in the government and the oil industry as a way of putting money into the hands of the poor, gave direct subsidies to those unable to work, and provided free health care and education for all.

Within ten years Chavez’s “revolution” had given Venezuela’s former poor the same basic living standard and social services that Saudi Arabia’s former poor already enjoyed. So far, so good – but then it started to fall apart.

Massive corruption sabotaged Venezuela’s oil production: it has more oil than Saudi Arabia, but it pumps only a quarter as much. More and more of the country’s heavily subsidised food ended up on the black market, starving the government-run supermarkets of supplies but enriching government employees.

Then the oil price collapsed, from $110 per barrel in June 2014 to only $26 by January 2016. It’s back up to around $50 now, but that’s still less than half what the Venezuelan and Saudi Arabian governments (and all the other oil exporters) used to get for their oil. So Venezuela is on the brink of revolution – but Saudi Arabia is not.

Every year Saudi Arabia saved a portion of its oil income, and when the price crashed it had $750 billion in cash reserves to draw on. It has run through $150 billion of that reserve since mid-2014, but it can probably keep popular living standards high until the price eventually recovers.

Venezuela had no cash reserve, and so the fall in the oil price meant instant, acute crisis. Chavez died in 2013, and his (legitimately elected) successor, Nicolas Maduro, has none of his charisma. Even if he did, the lack of any cash cushion made a collapse in living standards inevitable, and he could not now get re-elected.

The opposition parties won a large majority in last December’s congressional election, and are now pushing for a “recall” referendum that could drive Maduro from the presidency long before his term ends in 2019. He is resisting fiercely, and is even threatening to abolish Congress if it persists in opposing him.

The Venezuelan crisis may well end in major bloodshed, whereas Saudi Arabia is cruising through an equally big shortfall in national income relatively untouched. What can we learn from this remarkable contrast?

Nothing of universal signficance, but we can certainly offer some tentative advice to Third-World countries that suddenly get rich from oil. Don’t be a democracy if you can help it, because the corruption will be massive and the political perspectives very short-term. Have a royal family that plans to be in business for a long time.

The monarchies will be corrupt too, but the ruling families will keep it within bounds. They will redistribute the wealth as well or better than the democracies do, because it is in their interest to have satisfied, loyal subjects. And they will do long-term planning (like saving for a rainy day) because they think in terms of generations – their generations.

Not that they are really likely to stay in power forever.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Within…employees”)