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Archive for October, 2007

Jazeera reports on labor strikes in Dubai on Sunday:

[O]n Sunday, labourers ignored threats of deportation and refused to go to work, demanding pay increases, improved housing and better transportation services to construction sites.

[..]

Ali bin Abdullah al-Kaabi, Dubai’s minister of labour, described workers’ behaviour as “uncivilised”, saying they were tampering with national security and endangering residents’ safety.

Threats of deportation may no longer carry much weight. It seems working in the gulf may no longer be worth it for the Indian laborers:

But construction companies do not want more workers to leave as they struggle to find enough to complete existing projects following a government amnesty that gave free tickets home to illegal labourers.

In June, the government offered an amnesty to illegal workers and were promptly swamped by 280,000 applications for exit papers.

A booming economy in India means that many Indian labourers no longer see the need to travel to Dubai and the Gulf, said Bernard Raj, managing director of the Dubai-based Keith International, which supplies Indian workers.

“In the past, when we go for recruitment of workers we were able to choose whomever we wanted. Now the turnout of candidates is very low,” he said.

I’ve posted on this before: Dubai [2], Qatar.

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Oil: shocking lack of shock

Piece on BBC about oil prices and politics. Excerpts:

On Monday, oil rose to $93 a barrel, only seven bucks short of its cataclysmic, futuristic high, and the world is still standing, we are not at war with Iran (yet) and there are no riots at my local petrol station.

[..]

Oil is the poison in the diplomatic mix. The need to buy it means that energy-hungry giants like China will find another reason not to side with the US at the UN Security Council.

The need to sell it means that countries like Venezuela and Russia can replace the stagger of poverty with the swagger of wealth without reforming their economies.

We are addicted to oil and so are they. The addict and the pusher are equally doomed.

[..]

Last year Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist, said he welcomed the doomsday scenario of $100 a barrel, because only this would provide the necessary shock treatment.

It would finally concentrate minds on the strategic price of oil, on the way oil distorts America’s political interests, especially in the Middle East. 

[..]

I hate to say it, Tom, but we’re only a fistful of dollars short and the world continues to slide, even glide towards the abyss.

California burns, Georgia is dying of thirst, the Dominican Republic is drowning and I’m driving around in my beaten-up convertible with the roof down at the end of October in Washington DC.

Mother Nature is acting weird and virtually every scientist you speak to says it’s not just a cyclical phase or a freakish fit but a fact of science, which should give us sleepless nights.

Yes. Indeed.

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This article was published in September in the LA Times. It’s about Arba3a wi Noss (literally, 4.5), which is one of Cairo’s many squatter slums. It also happens to be one of the areas where a lot of (especially Sudanese) refugees have wound up. I know a lot of work has been directed there over the years, but without much lasting effect. In recent years, however, as with much work in Egypt, there has been a shift in focus towards more sustainable approaches, such as education and community-building. According to the article, it’s when Egyptian and refugees neighbors came together, that things got better.

Excerpts:

When tensions between impoverished Egyptians and even more destitute Sudanese refugees reached a boiling point in March 2005, relief agencies and community leaders assembled an emergency workshop to keep fights from escalating.

They found the roots of 4.5’s quandaries lay neither in the behavior of its dark-skinned newcomers fleeing war, nor the attitudes of the Egyptians, many of them recent arrivals to the big city from the country’s rural south. The problem was the district: a decrepit, rapidly growing area lacking water, power or a police presence

[..]

Many Egyptian residents of the neighborhood were uneducated recent arrivals to the city and “didn’t even understand why the Sudanese are here,” said Tawer Mirghali Ali, a Sudanese and former accountant who runs a school for refugee children and attended the workshop. “They didn’t even understand what a refugee is. They thought they were here only because they were poor and looking for some food to eat.”

The community leaders concluded that the rapid growth of the neighborhood, in a desert area on the city’s eastern edge, had made it particularly miserable. Throughout Cairo it had become infamous as a magnet for criminals, a haven for car thieves.

The Egyptians were suffering just as much as the Sudanese. They began pressing politicians for amenities. The Sudanese, some of them doctors and lawyers well- connected to the aid networks, provided the savvy the rural Egyptians lacked.

[..]

“In Cairo’s shantytowns, survival itself is a triumph, one that demands a degree of participation,” said author Maria Golia, who wrote about 4.5 in her book “Cairo: City of Sand,” an examination of urban space and culture in the Egyptian capital. “While middle- and upper-class members may feel they can afford an every-man-for-itself detachment from their neighbors and communities, it’s not really an option for the poor.”

( emphasis added)

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According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, biofuels are a crime against humanity. In a recently submitted report to the UN, he cites the use of food crops for conversion into biofuels as directly responsible for the world price increases. This comes in a year of unusually notable rises in food prices across the globe (mexican tortilla’s double in a year and maize up 70% in 6 months by Feb 2007). Accurate statistics notwithstanding, it’s quite evident in Egypt.

Experts have been for some time now warning of the negative effect of converting food agricultural products into biofuels on world food prices. Because the processes by definition require high-energy inputs to produce another substance to be used for energy, it’s staple products (starches and oils) that are most useful. In the US, federal subsidies (driven by greenhouse and energy dependence concerns) for biofuel production help drive farmers to sell over a fifth (in Jul 2006) and rising of US maize crops to refiners. Unilever, over a year ago, was warning Europe that food prices would soar as a result of shortages in palm and rapeseed oil, that did (20 to 30%) and could continue to result from setting road transport fuel targets.

Ziegler, similar to Unilver’s earlier position, urged for a 5-year moratorium on using such fuels until technology makes it possible to use agricultural waste (husks, cobs, wood shavings) or plants that grow in terrain unsuitable for food products.

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Foule for thought

The United States is to Europe as Rome is to Greece: a less-sophisticated, militaristic corruption.

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Nigeria reviews oil contracts

With oil prices up, there’s no doubt that (as before), there wave of resource nationalization (or contract review) will continue. It’s no longer just the pesky socialist and soviet revivalists. Nigeria is considering jumping on  board.

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Enigmatic Egypt

I think my title has a better ring than the one for this Rami Khouri article about the odd mix of progress on the economic level despite re-entrenched political authoritarianism.

Efforts to paint this country in a single shade of color are common, but not very useful. Egypt is neither structurally diabolic, nor genetically enlightened. I keep coming back to Egypt for visits and make it a point to speak to both critics and members of the ruling establishment, along with independent analysts and citizens, because Egypt continues to be so potentially important for the future of the entire Arab region. It is a barometer that measures the Arab political condition, but also a rudder that defines the direction in which other countries move.

At the regional level Egypt has been politically immobilized for the past quarter century, following its peace treaty with Israel and close reliance on the United States, but it has not been made irrelevant. Politically and economically, the domestic scene has been stirring again in recent years, and the imminent transition to a new president in the coming years might signal an opportunity for change. The problem is that this confounding land continues to send mixed signals on how it wants to change.

[..]

I do not know the political implications of, or the answer to, why a police- and army-dominated modern Arab security state can achieve brisk economic reforms, high growth rates and massive job expansion, in a manner that other Arab countries can only envy, without attempting any serious political reform. But I suspect that this is the right question to ask, as we continue to grapple with the enigma of an entire region of nearly 300 million Arabs who have not been able to achieve or sustain a single breakthrough to credible democracy.

Yes,  it is a good question to ask. However, my feeling is that the assessment of the (lack of) need for political reform is a little hasty. I think the wave of labor and, most recently, public service strikes and protests is an indication that there is undoubtedly a need. Perhaps it’s more a matter of how long this dichotomy can persist and what will come of it.

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