Friday 25 February 2011

Soul-Searching Over West's Weapons Sales to Arab Despots

The spotlight falls on the role of Western countries governments in selling arms to what critics call repressive Arab regimes.

Tripoli protesters "under fire" - PHOTO - BBC News 

As popular uprisings continue in Libya and other Arab countries, arms deals worth billion of dollars were signed at the Middle East's biggest defence and weapons exhibition in Abu Dhabi this week.


Thursday 24 February 2011

Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter

Blogs were once the outlet of choice for people who wanted to express themselves online. But with the rise of sites like Facebook and Twitter, they are losing their allure for many people — particularly the younger generation.

Michael McDonald of San Francisco used to post his videos on a blog, but now he uses Facebook (PHOTO - Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

See New York Times article, 20 February 2011

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Tourism in Jordan Hit by Fall-out from Egypt Turmoil

Unrest in Egypt and Tunisia has also scared visitors away from Jordan, which is losing a quarter of its normal income from tourism.

Tourist train near Wadi Rum  (IMAGE – Reinhard Dietrich)

Jordan's tourist industry, which brings in more than 3 billion US dollars a year, is another casualty of the recent unrest in Egypt and Tunisia.


Tuesday 15 February 2011

US Intelligence Funding Doubles Since 9/11

As President Obama seeks only a small increase in annual funding for intelligence agencies, US spooks prepare to tighten their belts.

CIA Museum Afghan Gallery  (IMAGE - CIA)

President Barack Obama's administration budget proposal for fiscal 2012 includes a request for 55 billion dollars for the CIA and other civilian intelligence services.


Monday 14 February 2011

Getting Economy Back on Course is Egypt's Priority

Egypt's military rulers must work with ministers and technocrats to minimise the damage to the economy after the 18-day uprising.

Abu Simbel - tourism is vital to the economy (IMAGE – M. Mary)

As Egyptians enjoyed an unscheduled public holiday on 14 February 2011 after the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, economists, politicians and ordinary workers began to confront the serious social and economic problems facing the country.


Tuesday 8 February 2011

Facebook Use Soars in Arab World

The use of Facebook soared by almost 80% across the Arab world in 2010, with younger users spearheading growth.

Article first published as Facebook Use Soars in Arab World on Technorati.

The use of social networking tools is soaring in the Arab world, with Facebook notching up more than 21 million users by January 2011.

Young people aged between 15 and 29, who comprise around one-third of the total Arab population, lead the take-up of social media.

The figures come from the inaugural edition of the Arab Social Media Report, published on 7 February by the Dubai School of Government in the UAE, a research and teaching institution focusing on public policy in the Arab world.

Using Facebook, "arguably one of the most popular social networking sites in the world", as a gauge of the popularity of social media in the region, the report analyzed data on users of the social networking giant across the Middle East, including the 22 Arab countries as well as Iran and Israel.

It found that in 2010 the total number of Facebook users in the Arab world surged ahead at a massive annual rate of 78%, from 11.9 million in January 2010 to 21.3 million by the end of the year, with 75% of users belonging to the 15- to 29-year-old demographic and driving its growth.

Breaking down Facebook users by gender, there is an average 2:1 ratio of male to female users in the Arab region, compared with almost 1:1 globally.

Egypt, with around 4.7 million Facebook users, accounts for about 22% of total Arab users. The UAE has the highest penetration rate in the Arab world, with more than 45% of the population having Facebook accounts.

In a few Arab countries, such as Iraq and Djibouti, more people use Facebook than the Internet, connecting to the former via mobile phones.

The report also compares penetration rates for the Internet and Facebook for each Arab country.

It concludes that a high internet penetration rate (such as the UAE with 75 per cent, or Bahrain with 53 per cent) does not necessarily indicate a similarly high Facebook penetration rate. Saudi Arabia has an internet penetration rate of 38 per cent and a Facebook rate of 12.24 per cent, while Oman’s figures are 51.5 and 7.55 per cent respectively.

"This may indicate social and cultural barriers to using the site, which shares personal information with others," the Dubai newspaper Gulf News noted.

The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated the power of platforms like Facebook and Twitter in organizing social and civil movements in the Middle East and North Africa.

Fadi Salem, Fellow and Director of the Governance and Innovation Program at the Dubai School of Government, said: "It is no coincidence that Tunisia witnessed an 8% sudden surge in the number of Facebook users during the first two weeks of January 2011, coupled with a shift in the usage trend from merely social in nature into primarily political."

Monday 7 February 2011

British Tourist Exodus from Egypt May Last Months

Egyptian workers in Red Sea resorts are sent home on unpaid leave, but the industry hopes for a swift recovery.

Souvenir stalls in Hurghada  (IMAGE - Henning Leweke)

With protests in Egypt calling for the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak on the eve of their second week, the British Foreign Office continues to advise on 7 February 2011 against "all but essential travel to Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Suez". Most travel insurance policies refuse to pay out if the holder travels to an area against Foreign Office advice. However, British tour operators are keen to stress that holidaymakers in the popular Red Sea resorts face little disruption.


Saturday 5 February 2011

Book Review: "Light from the East" - the Science of Medieval Islam

American scholar John Freely has written a comprehensive but readable history of Islamic science for the general reader.

"Light From The East" by John Freely

The scientists and philosophers of the medieval Islamic world, based in centres of
learning ranging from Central Asia to Spain, preserved the knowledge they acquired
from earlier ancient empires and later conveyed it to Europe. The immense scope
of their work influenced Western thinkers and helped to inspire the Renaissance,
writes American scholar John Freely, who has taught physics and the history of science
at Bosphorus University in Istanbul for more than half a century.


Friday 4 February 2011

Tourism Crisis as Foreign Visitors Desert Egypt

Egypt counts the cost as continuing political turmoil puts millions of jobs in its tourism industry at risk.

Swimming in Hurghada  (IMAGE - Espen Birkelund)

The TV pictures of foreign nationals flocking to Cairo airport to fly out of Egypt have brought a sinking feeling to tour operators, already counting the cost of business lost in Tunisia since the December 2010 political turmoil there.


Thursday 3 February 2011

Egypt Counts Cost of Protests, Internet Shutdown

Initial estimates for the economic losses expected from Egypt's political turmoil run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Tahrir Square protests, 30 Jan 2011

Article first published as Egypt Counts Cost of Protests, Internet Down-Time on Technorati.

The Egyptian government’s blocking of Internet services for five days in a bid to undermine coordination of the protests against President Hosni Mubarak is likely to have cost the country 90 million dollars, according to preliminary estimates by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on 3 February.

The government ordered most internet service providers (ISPs) to suspend services on Friday 28 January, and access was only partially restored on Wednesday 2 February. During the shut-off only a tiny number of users in Egypt were able to access the net, some by using expensive satellite services.

More than 17 million Egyptians use the Internet, over 20% of the population, according to Internet World Stats data from February 2010. Other estimates, adding new users in the last year, put the figure as high as 23 million. About 4 million Egyptians have Facebook accounts.

The blocked telecommunications and Internet services account for roughly 3-4% of GDP, or a loss of 18 million dollars per day, the OECD said.

The Internet shut-off was not total, as the authorities allowed the small ISP Noor to operate until Monday 31 January. Noor's high-profile clients include the Egyptian Stock Exchange, the Commercial International Bank of Egypt, the National Bank of Egypt and Egypt Air.

The OECD warned that the long-term impact of totally blocking the Internet could be greater, as Egypt found it more difficult in the future to attract investment from international high-tech firms and assure them that the networks would remain reliable.

The continuing political crisis is also having an economic impact on Egyptian banks.

U.S. ratings agency Moody's on Wednesday 3 February downgraded the ratings of five Egyptian banks, which could reduce their ability to borrow money. The move followed the agency's lowering of the government's debt rating on 31 January.

The banks affected are Bank of Alexandria, Banque Misr, Commercial International Bank, National Bank of Egypt and Banque du Caire.

The Voice of America quoted Moody's as saying the current political uncertainty in Egypt may disrupt economic activity and "negatively impact foreign direct investment flows" into the country.

Most banks have remained closed in recent days. One consequence has been that Egyptians based in the Persian Gulf states, who make up the bulk of the population living abroad, have been unable to send vital remittances back home. Egypt relies heavily on remittances from its citizens abroad, which totalled about 7.6 billion dollars in 2010, according to World Bank data. The Egyptian currency has hit six-year lows amid the unrest, the Arabian Business website noted.

With clashes in Cairo and other major Egyptian cities between pro- and anti-Mubarak groups becoming more violent, it is too early to predict the long-term damage to Egypt's tourism sector, which earned the country more than 11 billion dollars in the last fiscal year.

Israeli Press Concerned over Future of Peace Treaty with Egypt

Israeli press editorials consider the implications of a new government in Egypt revoking the peace treaty with Israel.

Cairo, 30 January 2011 -   IMAGE - BBC

As the power struggle in Egypt between opponents of President Hosni Mubarak and his supporters became more violent on 3 February 2011, the possibility of a future government in Cairo revoking the peace treaty with Israel became a major concern in the Jewish state, cutting across the political spectrum.


Wednesday 2 February 2011

Book Review: “Pathfinders – The Golden Age of Arabic Science”, by Jim Al-Khalili

British physicist Jim al-Khalili recalls the Arab scientists of 12 centuries ago who helped to shape our understanding of the world.

See a shorter version of this review published in The Africa Report 

The Arab scientists and philosophers of 12 centuries ago who collectively helped to shape our understanding of the world are largely unremembered in the West, says the Iraqi-born British author, broadcaster and physicist Jim Al-Khalili in his book, "Pathfinders – The Golden Age of Arabic Science". (Published by Allen Lane, hardback, 302 pp., £25).


Tuesday 1 February 2011

More Mid-East Regimes Tighten New Media Curbs

Article first published as More Mid-East Regimes Tighten New Media Curbs on Technorati.
The prominent communication role, perceived or actual, that social networking sites played in the Tunisian and Egyptian popular uprisings will drive more regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to speed up the enforcement of new laws seeking to control how the region's 60 million online netizens use "new media".

In many Arab countries, existing media laws were drawn up decades ago, in an era when governments had the final say over which newspapers, radio and TV stations were allowed to operate, and what topics were off-limits.

In the last 15 years, the mushrooming across frontiers of pan-Arab satellite TV news channels like Qatari-funded Al-Jazeera, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya and Lebanon's Future TV ended Arab governments' monopoly over information. Al-Jazeera, in its own words, says it gives "a voice to the voiceless". But these channels, although a breath of fresh air, inevitably reflect the political agendas of their owners and paymasters.

Most people in the Middle East still get their news from television. But blogs, online news and networking sites like Twitter and Facebook (around 17 million users in MENA) have become increasingly popular, especially among younger people.

The media in Tunisia are enjoying new-found freedom after the ouster of President Ben Ali, but other Arab governments are trying to extend regulation and censorship to social media.

In January 2011 Saudi Arabia imposed registration and licensing requirements for online publications, although confusingly, for blogs and personal websites this is "voluntary". In practice, this will have no impact on posts on Twitter or Facebook. In June 2010 Kuwait and the UAE passed laws respectively making it a crime to visit "pornographic" websites or those that promote "terrorism".

Jordan, Yemen and Syria also have laws in the pipeline specifically to regulate news websites and other online media. A law yet to be approved by Yemen's parliament will impose hefty licence fees of up to 180,000 dollars on TV, radio and news websites. In Syria, which already blocks some 240 websites, a law to control online media is awaiting endorsement by MPs. Lebanon's information minister in December 2010 called for a media law revamp. And a new media law awaited in Qatar, the first in 30 years, has provoked concern among free speech watchdogs.

These laws will be largely in vain. Switching off social networking sites in Tunisia and Egypt (and for a while, suspending all internet access in the case of Egypt) led activists to find technological ways to circumvent the curbs, such as using satellite internet, or revert to "old media" including amateur radio, fax machines and dial-up modems.

Instead of heavy-handed arrests of bloggers, more enlightened Arab regimes may choose to engage with their critics on social networks, once they accept that the curbs they relied on for so long against the easier-to-control print media and broadcasters are no longer relevant in the age of internet activism.

Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi, meanwhile, has no time at all for the internet. In January 2011 he dismissed cyber-activism as "lies fabricated by drunkards and netizens high on drugs".