News & Current Affairs

February 20, 2010

Dubai killing awakes ghosts of assassinations past

Dubai killing awakes ghosts of assassinations past

CCTV footage of alleged assassination team
Mossad has form. Assassination has been one of its specialities since the time that Israel was killing Nazis in the 1950s

Jeremy Bowen assesses the fall-out in the Middle East from the alleged assassination of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh by Mossad agents in a luxury Dubai hotel.

“Shame you are not filming on a Friday,” said a local resident.

Jimmy, the BBC cameraman, was trying to get some decent pictures of the Dubai skyline, but there was a haze that was not helping.

“Why Friday?” we asked.

“Well, there is less building on a Friday,” he said, “so the air is not so dusty.”

Even with Dubai’s well-advertised economic problems there is still a lot of construction going on, by the standards of most places.

This is my first proper trip to Dubai since the late 90s and it is unrecognisable.

Back in the 1960s, according to my uncle who was here with the British army, the runway lights at Dubai airport were barrels of burning tar.

Burj Khalifa
The long war, the century or so of conflict between Arabs and Jews, cannot be defeated by property developers

When I was here first, on my way to Afghanistan in the late 80s, a fairly compact city was surrounded by a sweep of open desert, which just is not there any more.

They must have poured tens of millions of tonnes of concrete to build this sprawling city state.

As I write, I can see a burnt orange sun setting behind the Burj Khalifa, the new skyscraper that is the world’s highest building. It is extraordinarily tall.

Acres of gardens and golf courses in Dubai are green and lush, in a place with almost no rain, thanks to hugely expensive desalination plants.

The climate is wonderful right now, but in the summer it is appallingly hot and humid.

Never mind, everywhere is air-conditioned, especially the indoor ski slope, where they make real indoor snow and have a black run for experts.

‘Unobtainable dream’

Love it or hate it, they have tamed nature to build an incredible city.

Perhaps they never thought they could tame the Middle East too, though minds that could conceive the Burj Khalifa are not short of ambition.

But if not tame it, they were hoping to insulate this place from its dark, violent ways.

The assassination of the Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh proves that was one unobtainable dream.

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh

It is assumed Mossad is behind Mr Mabhouh’s death

The long war, the century or so of conflict between Arabs and Jews, cannot be defeated by property developers.

Its capacity to generate and export violence is unparalleled in today’s world.

Was Mr Mabhouh killed by Mossad, the Israeli secret service?

I do not know. But there is circumstantial evidence that he was.

Bloody hands

And he was an enemy of Israel, according to the press there, involved with arms shipments into Gaza.

In the kind of phrase Israelis use, he had Jewish blood on his hands.

Hamas gave him a hero’s funeral.

Mossad has form. Assassination has been one of its specialities since the time that Israel was killing Nazis in the 1950s.

If Israel was behind the assassination, then its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might well be troubled by the ghosts of assassinations past.

In 1997, during his first stint as prime minister, he authorised a Mossad hit on an up-and-coming man in Hamas, a Palestinian called Khaled Meshaal.

Two Mossad agents approached Mr Meshaal as he was walking down a street in Amman, the Jordanian capital.

Map of United Arab Emirates

They sprayed poison into his ear, but they bungled their escape and were found to be carrying false Canadian passports.

King Hussein, who hadn’t long since signed a peace treaty with Israel, was outraged. For him, it wasn’t just a breach of trust.

Rumours started that he was somehow complicit in the attack. With Mr Meshaal close to death, King Hussein demanded that Israel gave his doctors the formula for the poison and the antidote.

To get their two captured agents back, the Israelis was forced to release dozens of Jordanian and Palestinian prisoners.

They included the spiritual leader of Hamas sheikh Ahmed Yassin. He was a thorn in Israel’s side until he too was assassinated in an air strike in Gaza in 2003

Khaled Meshaal survived and is now the most senior political figure in Hamas, living behind heavy security in Damascus.

Netanyahu’s ‘fiasco’

So it was not a good time for Mr Netanyahu.

King Hussein refused to see him when he went to Amman to apologise and the then head of Mossad was forced to resign.

Israelis viewed the affair as a costly fiasco. It was one of the factors that contributed to a comprehensive defeat of Mr Netanyahu in an election two years later.

Benjamin Netanyahu [File pic]

Benjamin Netanyahu lost an election after a Mossad killing

There is one very significant difference between then and now.

In Amman in 1997 the would-be assassins were apprehended, along with their false Canadian papers.

This time round the alleged assassins’ faces have been published, along with their assumed names.

If they are Israeli agents, or freelance killers, then their identities have been blown.

But they are not in custody and that makes it much harder to prove that Israel did it.

If Israel had nothing to do with the killing, or with the theft of the identities of six British-Israelis for the alleged assassins’ passports, then Mr Netanyahu, now in his second term, has nothing to worry about.

But if Mossad is responsible, and that is the assumption in Israel as well as here in Dubai, then he has some sweating to do in the next few weeks.

Advertisements

November 19, 2008

Saudi owners ‘talking to pirates’

Saudi owners ‘talking to pirates’

Sirius Star

The Sirius Star has 25 crew – who are said to be unharmed

The owners of a Saudi Arabian oil tanker hijacked by Somali pirates are negotiating a possible ransom, the Saudi foreign minister has said.

The Sirius Star is the biggest tanker ever hijacked, carrying a cargo of two million barrels of Saudi oil – worth more than $100m (£67m).

Saudi’s Prince Saud al-Faisal did not confirm whether a ransom was likely to be agreed, but said talks had begun.

Meanwhile, the Indian navy says it has sunk a suspected pirate “mother ship”.

INS Tabar sank what was believed to be a Somali pirate “mother ship” after it failed to stop for investigation and instead opened fire in the Gulf of Aden, an Indian navy statement said.

We do not like to negotiate with either terrorists or hijackers. But the owners of the tanker, they are the final arbiters of what happens
Prince Saud al-Faisal

The captive crew on the Sirius Star include two British citizens, two Poles, one Croatian, one Saudi national and 19 Filipinos.

The Britons include Peter French, the chief engineer on board the vessel.

The other is Second Officer James Grady, from Strathclyde. Their families released a statement on Wednesday saying they hoped they would be home safely very soon.

There has been a surge in piracy incidents off the coast of Somalia during 2008. On Tuesday, a cargo ship and a fishing vessel became the latest to join more than 90 vessels attacked by the pirates this year.

The pirates who seized the MV Sirius Star and its 25 crew on Saturday are a sophisticated group with contacts in Dubai and neighboring countries.

Much of their ransom money from previous hijackings has been used to buy new boats and weapons as well as develop a network across the Horn of Africa, he adds.

‘Scourge’ of seas

Asked whether a ransom was being negotiated, the Saudi foreign minister said the decision rested with the owners of the tanker.

Map showing areas of pirate attacks

“We do not like to negotiate with either terrorists or hijackers. But the owners of the tanker, they are the final arbiters of what happens there,” Prince Saud al-Faisal said.

“What we know is that we are going to join the task force that will try and eradicate this threat to international trade.”

The tanker’s Dubai-based operators, Vela International Marine Ltd, would not confirm or deny negotiations were taking place.

“Given the sensitive nature of the situation, and to ensure the safety of the crew members, we are not prepared to make any public statement on this issue,” a spokesman told AFP.

The UK Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, said piracy was “a scourge wherever it appears anywhere in the world and at the moment the scourge is focused in the Gulf of Aden”.

He said the Royal Navy was co-ordinating the European response to the incident.

Shipping companies are now weighing up the risks of using the short-cut route to Europe via the Gulf of Aden and Suez canal.

However, travelling around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope would add several weeks to average journey times and substantially increase the cost of goods for consumers.

September 7, 2008

Swaziland king celebrates in style

Swaziland king celebrates in style

One of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchs, King Mswati III of Swaziland, has held lavish celebrations to mark his 40th birthday and 40 years of independence from Britain, reports.

King Mswati III

King Mswati III was flanked by dignitaries as he delivered his speech

Mswati III arrived in the stadium framed by mountains in the capital Mbabane in a brand new BMW – one of 20 bought just for the occasion.

The king, dressed in traditional clothing and wearing a beaded necklace, was welcomed by cheering, flag-waving supporters.

“We all trust him,” said a young man with a front-row seat, also in traditional dress.

“He’s a good man. He believes in his country. He loves everybody. We are all like the royal family.”

The king has a taste for the finer things in life – something he shares with his 13 wives.

Some of them arrived for the so-called “40-40” celebrations fresh from a shopping trip to Dubai.

With marching bands and dancing troupes, and a garden party to follow, it was a party fit for a king.

But can his impoverished kingdom afford it?

Contempt

The official budget is $2.5m (£1.4m) but some estimates claim the real cost could be five times that.

Critics say that it is money that could have been better spent elsewhere – on education, on health, and on saving lives.

People wave the National flag of Swaziland

Cheering crowds turned out to welcome the king to the stadium

With the world’s highest rate of HIV (adult prevalence of 26.1%), many believe there is nothing to celebrate.

For two days this week trade unions and civic groups took to the streets in protest calling for change and for multi-party democracy.

“We condemn this party with the contempt it deserves,” said Swazi Trade Union leader Jan Sithole, as he marched in the capital.

“People feel so strongly because this is a plundering of the country’s resources in the height of grinding poverty for most of the Swazi masses.

“People feel their money is being wasted, with arrogance.”

Powerlessness

Take a drive into the bush, and poverty is written all over the landscape – dirt roads, rundown homes, and hungry children.

President of Uganda Yoweri Moseveni and President of Botswana Ian Khama

A collection of African heads of state made the trip to Mbabane

Sibusiso Mamba is one of them. His name means blessing. Sibusiso is an Aids orphan, who is HIV positive himself. Now aged 14, he looks more like a seven-year-old.

For the past two months he has been on anti-retro viral drugs (ARVs).

They brought him back from death’s door, according to his grandmother, Ntsambose, who is caring for him at a remote homestead – 80km (49.7 miles) from the nearest hospital.

Now, as the king is having a banquet, she has run out of food.

“I feel bad when I see that he’s hungry,” she said. “It hurts me. He’s better because of the medicine. But the problem of hunger will make him sick again.”

Ntsambose knew nothing of the celebrations in the capital, or of the money being spent.

“Who am I to say anything?” she asked. “There’s nothing I can say about what is done by the king.”

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe was among those present

Many feel powerless to speak up against the monarch – criticism of Mswati is still frowned upon here.

Ntsambose can hardly see, so she relies on her grandson to gather firewood.

It takes all his strength to carry a few sticks. He dreams of being well enough for school next year, and of growing up to be a policemen. But he may not live to his next birthday.

Aids campaigners Tengetile Hlope, whose has been helping Sibusiso and his grandmother, believes this is no time for parties.

“HIV is killing the country. When you think of the budget that is being used for the 40-40 celebrations, you just feel like crying,” she said.

“There are people here who don’t have water, food or transport to a clinic.

“They are just out in the rural areas on their own. The people who are organising and celebrating the 40-40, they don’t even know about this place.”

’40 years of poverty’

The government denies that the birthday party is extravagant, and insists it’s a fitting way to mark a milestone.

“I think the nation can celebrate the achievements of the past 40 years,” said Percy Simelane, a government spokesman.

Women who took part in the birthday celebrations for Swaziland"s King Mswati III stand in line for food

After the celebrations, many of those who attended waited in line for food

“The country has changed tremendously. At independence we used to get teachers, doctors and nurses from other countries. Now we export them. ARVs are provided free.

“Aids orphans go to school free of charge, and the government pays for meals.”

But a short distance from Sibusiso’s homestead we found more evidence of the hardships many face, at a neighbourhood children’s centre.

About 60 children visit the centre every day – more than half of them are Aids orphans.

The volunteers who run the centre feed them when they can – that is about two days a month.

On the day of our visit, there were songs, games and informal education for the children, but nothing to eat.

Tengetile Hlope believes this is the reality of life for many in rural Swaziland, four decades on.

“I feel like I am just celebrating 40 years of poverty and hunger in this country,” she said.

September 4, 2008

Seven killed in Dubai air crash

Seven killed in Dubai air crash

Keppel Corporation website]

The helicopter crashed on the Maersk Resilient

Seven people were killed when a helicopter crashed into an oil rig off the coast of Dubai, officials say.

The victims were a Briton, an American, a Filipino, a Venezuelan, a Pakistani and two Indian nationals, the country’s Civil Aviation Authority said.

The helicopter crashed into the deck of the rig during take-off, Petrofac, the operator of Dubai government’s offshore oilfields, said in a statement.

An investigation is under way into the cause of the crash.

The incident happened on at 2020 (1720 GMT) on Wednesday.

The Aerogulf Bell 212 helicopter, carrying two crew members and five passengers, was on a routine flight from the Rashid oil field, 70 kilometres (43.5 miles) from Dubai, Aberdeen-based company Petrofac said.

“During take-off the helicopter crashed onto the deck of the Resilient, the Maersk jack-up drilling rig,” it said.

“The aircraft then broke up and fell into the sea.”

Map

The helicopter accident happened off the coast of Dubai

The company added: “Immediately following the incident, a fire broke out on the main deck of the drilling rig which was quickly contained and extinguished.”

The company said there were no survivors on board.

There were no additional casualties on either the drilling rig or the platform.

All operations on the Rashid field have been suspended and the platform and drilling rig have been secured, Petrofac said.

The company confirmed that the victims were foreign contractors and said that their relatives were being informed.

August 30, 2008

Australia suffering ‘man drought’

Australia suffering ‘man drought’

Lifeguards on Manly beach

Australia’s coastal regions have been hit by man shortages

An analysis of new census figures has shown that Australia is suffering from an unprecedented “man drought”.

The statistics have revealed that there are almost 100,000 more females than males in Australia.

The problem is worse in the coastal cities, where women have moved seeking better jobs and lifestyles, while many men have gone overseas.

Thirty years ago Australia was with flush with men thanks to immigration policies that favoured males.

That position has been reversed because thousands of Australian men in their 20s and early 30s have gone overseas either to travel or to work.

It has caused a gender imbalance that is having far-reaching implications.

Town and country

Major cities in Australia now have concentrated groups of unattached women, along with dwindling numbers of the opposite sex.

Demographer Bernard Salt says the exodus of young men to foreign countries is leaving its mark.

“If you go into the United Arab Emirates census you’ll find there is around 12,000 Australians living in Dubai, mostly male, mostly in the 25 to 34-year age group.

“Here is an example of one country that has drawn out a specific age demographic out of Australia which has contributed to the ‘man drought’.”

But the situation outside of the larger towns and cities is very different.

Vast numbers of women have abandoned the countryside seeking better jobs or education in metropolitan areas. They have left behind communities overloaded with younger males.

In the town of Glenden in the northern state of Queensland there is one single female for every 23 men.

Demographers have compiled a so-called “Love Map” that shows how the various clusters of unattached men and women are distributed across the Australian continent.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.