Whatever happened to Adnan Khashoggi?

Dear Folks,

In April, BBC Two commissioned a series of documentaries focusing on Britain during the 1970s. Many consider this to be one of its bleakest decades. While most Brits froze; suffered black outs and general misery, sun-kissed Arab Sheikhs from the Gulf were popping up in London to purchase real estate and lavish goods. They set a trend that has lasted to this very day, and one name that became synonymous with the Arab über elite was Adnan Khashoggi.  Throughout the seventies and eighties, his name epitomized decadence and crookedness. His parties were legendary, his female companions became celebrities in their own right and he kissed the hand of almost anyone in business. Once a mainstay in glossy magazines, Khashoggi has fallen from lofty heights, and these days his name is rarely mentioned. Many of the people who flocked to him, are now immersed in activities a world away from the glitz and ephemeral glow of high society. Who was this man who collected friends, as well as enemies with unfathomable ease?

Adnan Khashoggi was born in 1935 in the Saudi city of Mecca. His father became close with the royal family, as he was the personal physician of King Abdel Aziz al Saud. Adnan was sent to Alexandria in Egypt to be educated at Victoria College. It was a conservative institution in which one could be punished for not speaking English. His classmates included a young King Hussein of Jordan. Khashoggi then attended California State University and Stanford University, but he never completed his studies. He enjoyed living well, and dabbled in business in order to supplement his monthly student stipend of $ 200 dollars. In the end, his taste for commerce proved too great. In his early twenties, he went back to Saudi Arabia and got involved with an industry that would set him on a path to richness. In 1956, he earned a commission of $150,000 for supplying his country with three million dollars worth of trucks that were sent to Egypt, to help them in their campaign against the Israelis. In the years to come, he was responsible for brokering military hardware sales that were valued in the billions, and Khashoggi would secure sometimes 5-15% of the cost for himself. In 1970, he earned a commission of $184 million by helping the U.S.aircraft manufacture Northrop, now Northrop Grumman, sell $4.2 billion dollars worth of F-5 warplanes to Saudi Arabia. Front companies based in  Switzerland and Liechtenstein handled many of his deals. Within ten years, his total worth was valued at $ 4 billion, and many were calling him the richest man in the world. He was also close to a number of political heavyweights. He supported Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign and even bought his daughter a $60,000 dollar bracelet. Khashoggi knew how to charm. In the eighties, investigative journalist Ronald Kessler wrote that Khashoggi: “has tremendous grasp of how people tick”.

There are also few tycoons who shared the same appetite for conspicuous consumption as Khashoggi. There are stories galore about his purchases. He bought twelve homes in cities such as: Paris, Cannes, Madrid, New York, and a Marbella estate situated on 5000 acres. He bought 100 limousines, a DC-8 jet,  a $ 75 million dollar yacht, named after his daughter Nabila (which Donald Trump later bought), and a South Korean martial arts body-guard. At his 50th birthday party, he invited 400 guests to Marbella. Hollywood’s hottest stars of the era were there including Brooke Shields and Sean Connery, with Moët flowing by the gallon.

In regards to his personal life, in 1961, he married the attractive British woman, Sandra Daly, who converted to Islam, and later changed her name to Soraya. Still a teenager, she married Khashoggi before he earned his millions. She had five children with him. However the pair parted in 1974, and five years later, Soraya sued him for divorce for a figure of $2.54 billion. During the proceedings, Khashoggi was represented by Joseph A. Ball, who was a senior counsel to the Warren Commission. In the end, Soraya walked away with an estimated $874 million in an out-of-court settlement.  In 2007, The Daily Mail discovered her working as a florist, and has since shed her glamorous appearance.  She is estranged from most of her children.  After Soraya, Khashoggi remarried the Italian Laura Biancolini, who also changed her name  to Lamia. However his addiction to women meant that she struggled to compete.

Khashoggi, along the same lines as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, had an insatiable desire to procure beautiful young women; both for himself and for those he wanted to impress. It is reported that he used the services of a French madam called Mireille Griffon, who was ordered to provide girls between the ages of 18 to 24. She was also known on the Côte d’Azuras Madame Mimi. She groomed ladies for the elite, and Khashoggi offered ordered two or three girls at a time. This tactic often helped to seal the deal with whose business he sought. One of the most famous or perhaps infamous ladies to come into his midst was the former Indian beauty queen Pamella Bordes. She worked as a researcher in the House of Commons, and was introduced to Khashoggi through a mutual friend. She joined the band of lady lovelies at his home in Marbella, and Khashoggi once sent Bordes to Riyadh to sleep with a Saudi royal prince.  Bordes would later give a tell-all interview about her experience to the UK’s Daily Mail. She now lives in Goa, working as a photographer, but  prefers to be called Pamela Singh.

Controversy and tales of corruption dogged Khashoggi as his wealth grew. In the United States, officials from the Securities and Exchange Commission subpoenaed him twice, before he eventually agreed to speak about foreign payoffs. Khashoggi was also implicated in the Iran-Contra affair, which involved the sale of arms to Iran to secure the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon. This was in violation of an existing arms embargo. Khashoggi, or “Mr. Fix-it”, along with Manucher Ghorbanifar acted as financial intermediaries for the shipment of missiles. In 1988, his holding company in the United States, Triad America Corporation, located in Salt Lake City went bankrupt, with liabilities of reportedly $ 197.5 million and assets of only $9.5 million. Khashoggi blamed it on cash flow problems.  At the same time, he was indicted on a charge of helping the ousted Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Emelda divert assets and hiding their ownership of real estate and artwork through his front companies. At the start of the nineties, Khashoggi’s name was poison in the financial world, as little by little, it soon became clear that “Mr. Fix it”, could no longer pay his bills and his creditors wanted to pounce. Due to the allegations of racketeering, the US government sought his extradition from Switzerland. He managed to avoid prosecution for serious offenses such as racketeering, and was eventually acquitted.

Today, nearing eighty, Adnan, spends his time, using his connections, working as a consultant. It is reported that he lives  in both Monte Carlo and Riyadh, and is by no means a poor man. Today however a new generation of western-educated Saudis has taken over who are comfortable navigating their way in the western commercial world.

Today there is less and less talk about the former Saudi tycoon, who is the last in the line of international playboys, who never hid their penchant for the good life and their avarice. Nowadays, especially in the midst of the global economic crisis, it is not done to be a big spender. For Khashoggi, I wonder if all that wealth, all that excess means anything to him now.

AIPAC memories

Dear Folks,

I know! I know! I have spent an egregious amount of time away from my blog, but I am here to assure you that I am back and I intend to work my little butt off in writing some new posts and discussing the latest news from the placid  Middle East.

A while back, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held their annual policy conference. The event is a firm fixture on the US political calendar, and often sets the tone for US-Middle East relations for the rest of the year. It is often referred to as simply the ” Lobby”. One thing that cannot be denied is that AIPAC is one of the most successful organizations in the US. The New York Times calls AIPAC “the most important organization affecting America’s relationship with Israel”.

It earns millions of dollars from its members, who give generously. On its website, it claims to have 100,000 grass-roots activists, and if you attend a policy conference, you can easily believe it. Their prime role is to maintain the US-Israel relationship, and  keep it strong. Its members operate on the principle that it is of the utmost importance to cultivate strong relations with the US Congress, the Senate and of course the President. Their mission is to educate these folks on the bonds that unite the United States and Israel.

It is exceptionally well-organized, with at least ten regional offices, and operates in both universities and high school campuses.

However, for whatever can be written about AIPAC, nothing can fully illustrate its significance until you attend a policy conference. This is not an easy feat, as the ticket to get through the Washington Convention Center’s doors will set you back at least a couple of hundred dollars. But once you are in,  brace yourself, as prepared to be dazzled by 9-foot high posters of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat embracing each other, or chiseled-jaw Israeli soldiers standing at the Western wall. It may seem for a moment that the Disney Corporation was put in charge of Israel’s PR.  However, the adventure truly begins when you register and they hand you a bag bursting with literature and a name tag to wear for the duration of the conference.

Most of the literature is devoted to the well of deep and meaningful stories of retirees in Arizona or Florida, who have chosen to become AIPAC benefactors. Often they make it a part of their life assurance plans.  In fact sections of the conference hall are covered in testimonials of dozens of AIPAC donors, who give in their thousands. In order to join the exclusive club, you have to be prepared to tranche out at least $25 ,000 USD. This is not exactly cheap, but you are offered a host of benefits, such as hobnobbing with your favourite AIPAC guests i.e. politicians and celebrities, and trips around the globe.

The one part of AIPAC, that is by far the most mesmerizing, is the plenary. In the year I attended, there were over 10,000 people. A screen a kilometer long periodically shows clips of honest, hardworking AIPAC members who have shed countless hours, blood, sweat and tears to form relationships with Congressmen and women, and other decision makers, with the aim to secure support for bills affecting Israel. The one video I remember, which made me cringe, was of a bubbly California house wife, who after an AIPAC Ladies who Lunch luncheon, decided to join the cause, and  head  to Capitol Hill with the plan to drive home the message of the US’ support for Israel. Hearing her shrill voice and rose-hued vision for why she believes AIPAC is the only way to support Israel, made me shiver at how little she seems to understand the harsh realities of what the average Israeli faces. At AIPAC,  it is not the done thing to discuss Israel’s grave economic disparities, the high cost of living and the growing tensions between the country’s secular and orthodox communities. Even more striking, hardly a syllable of Hebrew is uttered.

You only hear the good parts, which is perfectly fine, but at the time, it seemed that  Israel,  becomes an Eliza Doolittle, to an Henry AIPAC Higgins. It seems AIPAC simply imposes or stage crafts what it wants Israel’s perception to be to the outside world, without letting it be what it is, warts and all.

As it is a policy conference, several policies, or rather proposals are put onto the agenda. In 2010, just as in 2012, it was Iran, Iran and more Iran.  There is no hesitation on what the correct course of action should be: crippling economic sanctions and lots of them! Also, a committment to sustaining a strong US-Israel relationship, but that never changes.

That is what I love about AIPAC, they don’t beat about the bush;  they are clear as crystal as to what needs to be done to solve whatever problem that comes in the crosshairs of the US and Israel.

Outside the plenary are also dozens of “break out” sessions. These are panels with a number of scholars, government officials, lawyers, soldiers and authors who come to discuss all manner of subjects concerning Israel, the Middle East and the role of the United States. It is often difficult to know which one to attend, because  the subjects for discussion, on first glance make you want to salivate with anticipation. Yet, the discussions always reach the same conclusion. No one deviates from the party-line and without the cut and thrust of  debate and diverse opinions, your critical faculties freeze. At least mine did.

But , the part that is the most exciting and what I love about AIPAC is the way it coats itself in Oscar night  glamour. On the second day, there is a gala dinner, and as you sit below eating rubber chicken and overcooked vegetables, you are left in a daze, as you look up at the ten-foot high,  mile long screen. Three AIPAC officials announce the “roll call”, which consists of dozens of congressfolk, senators, governors, diplomats, celebrities and other prominent attendees, whose names are each read out to show how much they are appreciated: “From California Senator BARBARA BOXER!!,  and  from Minnesota,  Senator Al FRANKEN!!…”. This will make a lot of sense if you have been at a policy conference.

After name – what seems like  no. 547  –  is read out, and  we start tucking into our dinners, one celebrity/keynote speaker after the other comes to talk about their love for Israel and why they support it. One story that stuck in my head, was by Senator Charles Schumer from New York, who  shared a story about a Shabbat dinner at his house with Benjamin Netanyahu, in which, in an attempt to illustrate the relations between – now my memory is a bit hazy – the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world,  Netanyahu stuck his finger in the top of a Coke bottle, started to shake it, before turning to Schumer’s wife, saying, “It is like this…” . After which he removed his finger and Coke sprayed around the room. The audience seemed to think this was incredibly funny, dunno why?  I just thought of poor Mrs Schumer’s ruined living room table covered in sugary-brown Coke stains, all because Netanyahu wanted to prove a point. If my memory serves me correct, it was a little while after this anecdote that P.M. Netanyahu appeared at the podium and  rounded up the dinner with an hour-long speech. I can’t remember what he said.

After the two-day conference comes to a close, all the delegates climb into buses headed for the Hill to meet with congress folk. I didn’t join them at this part, but the delegates, bursting at the seams  with ideas, from all that they have heard at the conference,  made me wonder what Congress officials must think of these hoards of eager beaver Israel supporters who all espouse the same goals. It must be dizzying, but certainly effective!

Also, to conclude, for those in the know, I gotta say that I love Rosie!!

Go Rosie!!

Cairo: The Victorious

Dear Folks,

An incident happened recently, which in my eyes, made Brussels truly live up to its reputation as one of Europe’s most crime-ridden cities. My fiancé and I decided to go to the northern part of the city to do some shopping, and later we went to a cafe. While sitting al fresco, absorbing the unseasonably warm weather, we observed a group of Japanese businessmen be pounced on by pickpockets. Luckily they did not score any success, but just ten minutes later, another tourist, from Brazil, who had innocently stepped out from his hotel, was again targeted by the same men, who brazenly worked to rip a gold chain from around his neck. The furore lasted a few minutes, and nobody intervened, or tried to help. Eventually someone plucked up the courage to chase after the thugs, but it was to no avail, as the culprits managed to run straight into the metro station, which runs on a ridiculous honour-system. It is up to the customer to buy a ticket, which means no barriers to pass through. This works a charm if you are a criminal trying to run from your misdeeds. The shocked tourist managed to get his chain back, but for the entire time we witnessed these two events, no police showed up, and more and more it seems that in Brussels, criminals can operate with impunity. Brussels is paralyzed by a scarcity of investment and heaves under the strain of multi-layered, but ineffectual bureaucracy. Civic pride is thin on the ground. You would never suspect that it was the capital of Europe, a place that attracts thousands of supposedly the smartest and capable Europeans to work in its confines. There are of course hints of Brussels’ yesteryear, from the art deco jazz clubs to the crumbling elegance of the old city and the Grand Place, but not much else.  It remains to be seen when it will once again inspire the dreams of its residents.

The Middle East is full of some of the most majestic and historic cities on earth.  The list is too long to mention, but history shows that, where there were once great cities, social factors can irreparably change their landscape. Cairo, also known as “the victorious” is a city, which is never out of the news these days. The streets of Egypt’s capital throng with people who dream of nothing else but true democracy, but for over sixty years, had to live in a country that saw the powers that be, literally strip away at its once prosperous warm underbelly. Napoleon called Egypt “the most important country”, because of its access to the Africa and the rest of the Middle East. During the first half of the 20th century, before the Free Officers’ Movement under Gamal Abdel Nasser deposed the monarch King Farouq, Cairo was the cosmopolitan city du jour, which attracted all manner of people. The cognoscenti came to explore the Pyramids and tombs of the pharaohs. Couples honeymooned on the Nile, as they still do, and whether you were Muslim, Christian or Jew, it did not matter, because Cairo could contain them all. Literature and ideas flourished, and decadence was served in ladles.

However after 1952, many things changed. The writer Andre Aciman, a Turkish-Jew who grew up in Egypt, witnessed the enormous changes that took place under Nasser. His life would turn into a gold-fish bowl, as non-Egyptians; especially Jews were viewed with suspicion. Touted as a hero for the Arab world, Nasser in the 1950s promised that he would quickly do away with military rule and make a transition to civilian rule. Nothing was to come of it, and instead, the regime made quick work to silence its critics, execute dissenters and stifle free expression. The police ensured that nobody forgot who was in charge; something that to this very this day is hard to break. When elections were first held, miraculously, Nasser somehow managed to achieve 99.9% of the vote. The country took on a decidedly sectarian flavour, Coptic Christians, while making up 10% of the population were marginalized within the government and rarely did they achieve senior positions.

On the other hand, Cairo gained a reputation as the Arab world’s cultural capital. The government downplayed Egypt’s Pharaonic past, and instead made an effort to promote the Arabic language, Islam and the country’s connection to the rest of the region. The voice of Um Khaltoum became Egypt’s soundtrack, but symbols of Cairo’s imperialist past, which included certain bars, cabarets and hotels, were targeted, and many foreign-owned businesses were expropriated. Nasser worked fast to nationalize the economy, and from a distance the United States watched with alarm as Nasser moved closer to the Soviet Union. He also worked on confronting the nascent state of Israel. The war in 1967 came as a serious blow, from which Nasser would never recover. His successor Anwar al-Sadat made some success in liberalizing the economy, which was helped by the introduction of financial aid from the United States. He wanted to connect the country to the world economy through his “open door” policy or infitah, and make Cairo the leading financial centre of the Middle East.

Yet paranoia set in after Sadat’s assassination by Gamaa Islamiyya in 1981. President Hosni Mubarak made sure the police were the eyes and ears of the regime. He did not take a single ambitious step that could see him in trouble. It was a case of “more of the same” and then some. During the 1980s, the Egyptian capital became crowded with men and women coming to eek out a living, since traditional agricultural pursuits became impossible, often due to limited water resources. The population of the country  from 1980 to 2000 almost doubled from 45 to 80 million. Today people complain of housing shortages, poor job prospects and inflation. The cost of bread and everyday essentials suffer from enormous price fluctuations. The average income is just $2 dollars or less. This is on top of health concerns due to pollution caused by exhaust pipes and industrial waste. Parts of the city itself do not have proper running water. However what is most alarming is the city’s education institutions have floundered. Thirty percent of the population cannot read or write. Robyn Wright also notes in her book “Dreams and Shadows”, that the once great University of Cairo has dropped to 28th place in Africa, and is no longer in the top 500 in the world.

Although life was and is very different for those former loyal party members, and individuals linked to the regime. The National Democratic Party had an estimated million members, and many took advantage of the political clout at their disposal, and lined their pockets. Anyone with wealth moved out to the planned developments or gated community towns on the periphery. The sites offer luxury accommodation, golf courses and shopping malls, while other Cairenes are confined to living in slum Soviet-style apartment blocks; living on the sustenance of bread and fava beans, with poor waste and garbage facilities.

Therefore it was not a surprise to anyone that the decades of economic mismanagement and autocratic rule pushed the Egyptian people, but especially the people of Cairo onto the streets, and into Tahrir Square. A place that is surrounded by the edifices built after Egypt achieved independence and is the centre of Egypt’s cultural heritage and history. It will now always be remembered as the site that truly set off the Arab Spring.

Hopefully this city can turn a chapter, and once again Cairo will rise up, clear away the dust and debris, and the physical signs of the cork screw dive to poverty that symbolised sixty years of authoritarian rule. It is up to its people to rediscover a thirst for knowledge and achieve a sense  of individual freedom. It will be interesting to watch and speculate who will be next to bend and shape this ancient capital, and make an imprint that will be discussed and tinged with nostalgia for years to come.

Don’t Do Dagestan!

Dear Folks,

A few weeks ago, my fiancé sent me a video of a wedding party which took place in the Russian North Caucasus’ republic of Dagestan. The wedding scene made me think that there are lands out there where Kazakh TV presenter Borat would feel right at home. The grainy images show a raucous crowd of men half-dancing, half-shadow boxing their way around the dance floor. Vodka flows and flows, spilling on the floor, which only makes the men slip and slide. At one point, the groom is roped into the proceedings by having his hair rubbed in vodka, and later, the pièce de résistanceoccurs when they unceremoniously remove the groom’s shoe, pour alcohol inside and one by one, the men take turns to drink from it. Nobody shudders or pushes it away. It is part of the plan, and it just baffled me that there are places where such bizarre behaviour occurs, and no one bats an eyelid. Welcome to Dagestan!

Now, I am not suggesting for a moment that everyone in this large republic is crazy or into drinking from shoes, but one wonders what kind of life one leads in this part of the world.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the North Caucasus has not been impervious to outside events.  There are almost nine million people in this region, and like the rest of the Federation, it is beset with corruption, unemployment, government heavy-handedness and economic stagnation. Bribery means that, here, everything comes with a price. One in six Dagestani university graduates cannot find work and officially unemployment stands at 20%. It is a toxic mix, and it has led to many embracing austere forms of Islam to combat these social ills, which is starting to radically change the face of the republic.

Last year, The Times correspondent Mark Franchetti reported on the appalling treatment of women in neighboring Chechnya. Uncovered women, or those not considered properly attired were subject to attacks by young men who would fire paint bullets at unsuspecting victims. It is now illegal for a woman to enter a government building without a headscarf and it is perfectly acceptable for a man to engage in polygamy. Chechnya today could not be more different. Under the tight fist of the petulant Ramzan Kadyrov, day-by-day, the once restless republic starts to look more like the Dubai of the Caucasus. It is stable, and flooded with money from Moscow, is seemingly prosperous, but has implemented laws that would make the Saudis blush.

Now Dagestan is slowly transforming into what Chechnya used to be, or still is. In a similar vein, it was due to a series of suicide bombings that the outside world first learnt that all is not well in this rarely heard of part of Russia. In March 2010, Moscow’s Metro station was targeted by two female suicide bombers, who together, killed forty people and injured 100. Many suspect that one of their intended targets was the Federal Security Service (FSB) whose offices sit above the Lubyanka station. We will never know for sure. In response, Moscow vowed to be tough on the burgeoning Islamic insurgent movement, and sent special forces, the police and the regular military to look for boyeviki or insurgents who have “gone into the forest”, meaning to join the bands of jamaat or insurgent units which prey on the authorities. Locals suspect that as many as 1,000 to 1,500 armed men at any one time seek refuge in the forest in order to plan and orchestrate terror attacks against the security services. According to Spiegel traffic cops working on roads leading to the capital Makhachkala have to be protected by elite forces from the Interior Ministry, because in 2009, 58 police officers were killed. Most are stressed and exhausted from the job, and unfortunately for them, the population does not trust them. Spiegel also notes that  insurgents are gaining the upper hand financially through their exploitation of the local population claiming that money given to them  is a form of charity known as zakat. Banks and businesses are robbed, and in most cases victims are sent text messages to pay up, believing they have no choice, since it is the only way of buying protection if in case the  insurgents take over, and  succeed in creating a pan-Caucasian Islamist caliphate.

Dagestan, which means “land of the mountains”, is composed of a potpourri of more than 32 different ethnic groups and languages. They include: Avars, which is the largest, followed by Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgins, ethnic Russians, Laks, Tabasarans and Nogai. Dagestan is also famous for being the birthplace of Imam Shamil who led campaigns against Tsarist forces. It took roughly 300,00 troops to crush the resistance movement. Under the Soviet Union, Dagestan was an autonomous region, largely secular, where Sufism mixed with local traditions. In the early 1990s, like the rest of Russia, Dagestan became a playground for the oil and caviar mafias and kidnappings were commonplace. In 1999, fighters who were busy fighting in Chechnya’s war against the Russians, crossed over the border in order to declare an independent state and stage their own  holy war against the Russians. The fighters were imbued with radical interpretations of Islam, which at the time had few followers in Dagestan. In stark contract, the republic was a awash with brothels, beauty parlours and casinos. But what a difference a decade can make. Fast-forward to 2011, and the majority of Dagestan women cover their hair, beaches where men and women used to  freely mix have been replaced with segregated sharia beaches. Shops selling alcohol have been blown up and according to an excellent article recently published in Newsweek; two school principals who were against girls wearing the hijab were killed. Women are heavily scrutinized for their attire more than ever before. Bakanai Huseinova, the manager of a financial company complains that “first, they make deadly threats for wearing a bikini; next they will want us to stop wearing our shorts and jeans, then ban us from going to restaurants and universities”.  Dagestan’s current leader Magomedsalam Magomedov is in the midst of trying to implement a government-sponsored programme to improve the image of Islam. He has announced that Dagestani’s Islam is “one of the purest in the world”, and says this is proof of the government working “to eradicate gambling dens, drug addiction and alcoholism”. It is entirely likely that  whatever pressure is brought to bear within Dagestan’s social sphere, either from Moscow or locally, women will be the first to feel the pinch. They should pay close attention to their Chechen counterparts.

In conclusion, Dagestan is and will remain for the foreseeable future Moscow’s greatest security challenge, President Dmitry Medvedev has admitted as much, and in the glare of next year’s election, as well as the winter Olympic games in Sochi, it will be up to the government to take a robust stance. Car bombings, assassinations and economic disintegration are just footnotes in the story of Dagestan’s painful dissent into chaos, which looks far from over.

Iran’s First Lady

Dear Folks,

I am a complete maniac for desserts. Given my easily aroused sweet tooth, I love to tuck into cakes, chocolates and sweets. I am trying to stick to healthier alternatives, but still, it is so hard to be disciplined. I just bought the most fabulous food processor. It is made by Philips, and it is out of this world. It is an all-in-one juicer, blender and processor. I have become a little obsessed making smoothies. I fantasize all day about the mouth-watering treats that I can now make at home. I have the same feeling of a young kid who has been given a marvellous toy, yet must wait impatiently at school, before coming home to play with it.

Anyway, today I have a question for you.

How many of you have ever heard of Azam al-Sadat Farahi? Well until a few years ago almost nobody had heard of her. She was a phantom, someone only known about in passing as Mrs Ahmadinejad. Search on the internet, and you will find little information; her husband’s biography actually sheds more light. According to reports, she first met Mahmoud at  the University of Science and Technology in Tehran, where she majored in mechanical engineering, and he specialized in civil engineering. For a period of time  she taught both chemistry and physics to high school students, but was never fully qualified to teach at a tertiary level. For the moment she no longer works, but devotes her time to official duties. She is the mother of three children, one girl and two boys: Mahdi, Alireza and Fatemeh. Mahdi got married in 2008 to the daughter of Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, who is Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, and in 2006, his daughter married the son of Ahmad Khorshidi, who is a loyal Ahmadinejad supporter.

With few pieces information available about Madame Farahi, anything that can be learnt is usually due to her rare public appearances. It was back in 2005 that everyone got the chance to see her accompany her husband on a visit to Malaysia. In 2009, during Ahmadinejad’s re-election campaign, Farahi did not make her presence felt and shied away from making speeches to endorse her husband. On the other hand, his rival’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, took every opportunity to speak on behalf of her husband Mir Hossein Musavi. The couple would walk holding hands and stand side by side on podiums. Both Rahnavard and Farahi are extremely devout women, who have both been critical of the west and secular values, but Rahnavard was not afraid to express herself and  does not behave submissively. It is difficult to tell if Farahi chose to or was told to take a relative back seat in her role as the first khanom of the Islamic Republic.  When Farahi does make appearances, she is always on the verge of being blotted-out by her all-concealing chador. In the Huffington Post Shirin Sadeghi posted an excellent photo of Farahi at a state dinner sandwiched between the wife of the speaker of Lebanon’s parliament, Randa Berri and the wife of Lebanon’s president, Wafaa Suleiman. The two other ladies are simply a picture of elegance, whilst Farahi, is encased in her jet black chador. Sadeghi makes the point that she represents a minority within Iran. Only in the most religious places do women still wear the garment, and Farahi seems like a throwback to the early days of the Islamic revolution.

Just like her husband, Farahi is not averse to making ridiculous comments. In late April 2010, she accused Western countries of using the structure of the United Nations to “promote illicit affairs”. “The family, which is the main pillar of every society, has collapsed in the West and they are seeking to extend their problem to the Islamic world by spreading decadent schemes”. And just like Mahmoud, she also  enjoys using highly colourful language. In 2010, the Tehran Times reported her involvement in the first International Conference of Women Scientists. At the conference, Farahi described ‘science’ and ‘women’ as cornerstones of creation, and described women as founts of love and passion, epitome of God’s love and beauty.

It was in 2009 that Farahi made the news after she wrote a letter to the then first lady of Egypt, Suzanne Mubarak, asking that she does more to help the people of Gaza: “I ask you to do whatever is in your capacity to help the people of Gaza and to help them from the oppression that they are suffering from, so that your name is placed alongside the name of worthy and peace seeking women”. Unfortunately Suzanne never did get round to helping Gaza’s oppressed population, but Lady Ahmadinejad got her first taste of notoriety. In the months after her letter of appeal, a forum of first ladies led by Suzanne Mubarak came to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome, and Farahi delivered a speech, once again in full chador. She affirmed Iran’s commitment to fighting hunger and said that since her country follows religious teachings, this guarantees food security for all families.

It seems a long time ago that the elegant and super-chic Shahbanou Farah Diba, who was the pride of Iran, travelled the country meeting and greeting people, was also a proud patron of the arts and spoke several foreign languages.  She could not be more different to Madame Ahmadinejad, who seems completely out of touch, playing and acting to a different tune. In comparison to Farah, she seems faceless and colourless. She represents an Iran, or rather is a symbol of the excitement and frivolity that was drained from the country after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Today everything is sealed off and hidden away, and beauty is considered a threat. It should be no surprise that Iran’s first lady appears the way she does.

The Kingdom Tower: A Great White Elephant?

Dear Folks,

One woman who I thought would never get a mention on “Brussels to Beirut” is the blonde airship herself, Paris Hilton. Recently while going on one of my frequent rummages through YouTube, I found an episode of her show “The World According to Paris”, which I hoped, would give a morsel of insight into how this peroxide pony actually manages to command an empire. She rakes in millions through sponsorship, fragrances, fashion lines and furnishings. However, while watching this vacuous slosh, it made me realize that all the tabloid gossip is true: she is a diva who punishes her assistants, frets incessantly over her beef cake boyfriends and for someone who is a 30-year-old woman should really grow up. Truth be told, Kim Kardashian, who truly is a bombshell, is slowly overtaking Miss Hilton, one endorsement at a time. Ok, enough of that!

Lately there has been a lot of buzz in the media regarding the planned construction of the world’s next tallest building. The man behind the much publicized “Kingdom Tower” is one of the world’s wealthiest:  Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who is the nephew of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and through his vast array of investments has managed to generate an estimated fortune of twenty billion US dollars. To understand why such an ambition project was launched, one has to understand Prince Al Waleed. Bigger is always better! He already built another Kingdom Tower in Riyadh, which dominates the skyline. The blue concave topped roof is the capital’s signature building. The new Kingdom Tower will outstrip any other structure on earth, reaching an estimated height of 3, 280 ft. It will be fifty stories higher than the world’s current tallest building: the Burj Khalifa, and it will take an estimated five years to construct, at a cost of $1.2 billion USD. The Chicago-based architecture firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill was selected to design the tower. Gordon Gill says that once complete, the tower will resemble the “folded fronds of young desert plant growth”.

The tower will be the centerpiece for the Kingdom City complex.  Hotels, shopping centres and restaurants galore will be built, and it is hoped that a project this size will be a major step in helping Saudi Arabia diversify its economy away from its oil sector. For the wealthy Prince, the tower “sends a financial and economic message that should not be ignored”.

But in the mean time, one must not forget that this grand plan will be set in one of the world’s most socially restrained countries. It is not an easy country to visit on a whim, and it is hard to imagine the authorities allowing mini-skirts, short sleeve shirts and of course, men and women to freely mix. But if the Kingdom intends to attract investors, hotel chains, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs, it will have to come up with solutions to be more socially flexible, as is the case in Qatar and the U.A.E. It would have to loosen its visa requirements and if need be, turn a blind eye, from the possible excesses that result from a mass influx of foreigners. The days when the Kingdom could afford to be choosy about migrants and temporary guests, as everyone knows, will not last forever. But not for the moment, as recent events in Libya have seen the Kingdom experience its largest economic boom in five years. According to Jeffrey Towson from Business Insider,  “Oil is now over $100 per barrel and Saudi, the only major oil power with significant excess production capacity, has expanded production to make up for Libya’s decrease. Oil production is already up 7% from last year”. The increased revenue is to be used in order to construct 500,000 new housing units. Finding accommodation for the Saudi population has been a headache for the authorities, since most Saudi families prefer to live in villas. In addition, welfare handouts and public sector wage increases were promised in February and March.

Five years from now, the Kingdom tower is expected to be launched, and what the past few years have taught us is that one year can have an earth-shattering effect on one’s future plans. Saudi Arabia has all the components to be a tinderbox. The 88-year old monarch, who was praised for having a reform agenda, is predicted to be replaced by his conservative brother Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, who is also not a young man, but commands a loyal power base. In June, Foreign Policy magazine noted, “Saudi palaces could be mistaken for luxurious old-age homes”.  If the Kingdom does not address glaring problems with income disparities, social and travel restrictions, there may be no one to stay inside the glittering mile-high tower. One Dubai-based real estate analyst summed up the mood: “This is about making a statement and not addressing real needs in the market”. A statement that could easily become both an eyesore and an economic miscalculation that will take years to undo.

Iran’s African Odyssey

Dear Folks,

I just came back from a fabulous holiday in eastern Romania. For a country that is most associated with gymnasts, babies for adoption and Vlad the Impaler, it has a surprising amount to offer. I particularly liked their industrial cookies and national chocolate bars. I think it is a place that everyone should visit if the opportunity arises.

Three years ago, whilst rummaging through a drawer, I came across a sim card belonging to my fiancé written in Farsi. It came from South Africa’s telecommunications giant MTN. I thought it baffling at the time that a South African firm would be involved in a country so far away. But sure enough, I discovered that MTN struck a deal in 2005 to purchase a 49% stake in Iran’s Irancell mobile network. The Islamic Republic is now the third largest market for MTN after South Africa and Nigeria. Across Africa, business for Iranian firms is booming.  Africa is a vast chessboard for competing interest groups, whether they are aid agencies, oil companies, diamond smugglers or nations seeking to clean its image in the world. The Islamic Republic is one in a long line of countries headed to the continent.  The same government charged with the brutal task of crushing and eliminating dissent across Iran is trying to rebrand itself as concerned with the downtrodden and exploited people of Africa.

Many leaders have welcomed Iranian investment.  In February 2011, Zimbabwe’s Herald newspaper reported on a group of Iranian investors looking to boost trade links in the mining and agricultural sector. Abbas Johari from the Co-operative Ministry said: “we carry a special friendship message to the people of Zimbabwe…We want to explore areas of possible investment and co-operation in Zimbabwe”. In April 2010, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went on a major tour of African capitals. He went to a trade fair in Zimbabwe, followed by Uganda, where Iran is building a tractor assembly plant, and also proposed to construct a $ 2 billion dollar oil refinery. Three months later, he travelled to Nigeria in which Iran’s second-largest car manufacturer Saipa produces and markets budget vehicles. In nearby Senegal, the Iranian company Khodro assembles vehicles in the capital Dakar, and in East Africa, the state-owned Kenya Meat Commission signed a lucrative deal in January to supply Iran with 1000 metric tonnes of meat, and plans to increase the amount depending on demand.

In country after country, Iran has been making an impact. From 2005 to 2009, overall Iranian exports to Africa more than doubled. It is not just about business, the Islamic Republic needs to secure UN votes. South Africa for instance has abstained on resolutions condemning the country’s human rights violations. According to the AEI’s Iran Tracker, in July 2008, South Africa reiterated its position on Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear technology and claimed that the International Atomic Energy Agency, rather than the UN Security Council should deal with the issue. In 2008, after Russia and China reduced military aid to Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir, signed a bilateral agreement with Iran, which included military cooperation. A year later, Sudan’s foreign minister Deng Alor lent his country’s support for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As far as President Ahmadinejad is concerned, there are no limits to the expansion of Iran’s ties with African countries. In September 2010, South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper reported the president say, at an Iran-Africa conference, that “Iran and Africa wanted a new world order to replace the existing one which has been created by slave masters”. In November, the foreign minister at the time, Manouchehr Mottaki told a group of Iranian businessmen: “we do not want to plunder Africa like the Westerners and colonialists, and we’re seeking bilateral economic relations beneficial to both sides”. Numerous countries over the years have come to take advantage of Africa’s vast natural resources. Until the middle of this century, it was the domain of a select group of empire-building states that were more interested in placing flags in the ground, carrying loot to the motherland and implanting its own cultural paraphernalia. On the other hand,  the Islamic Republic wants to be the altruistic alternative.

However, on closer inspection, all is not as rosy as it would appear. For one thing, Iran is not the only country looking for African partners. China, Turkey and Israel are all looking to invest, and Iran, despite the rhetoric, has in some cases failed to live up to its promises. According to an article featured in The Africa Report from June 2011, Iran advanced funding in 2004 for Zimbabwe’s state broadcaster to refurbish its obsolete equipment. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation claimed the Iranian supplied broadcasting equipment was “defective”, and only one out of three re-equipped studios was able to function. ZBC argued that engineers from the station expected to be flown to Iran to learn how to use the equipment before commissioning, which was part of the contractual agreement, but the training trip never took place. The corporation and the Iranian government are now in a spat due to ZBC’s refusal to repay a 5 million euro loan, after honouring only €300,000.

In October 2010, the Nigerian government seized an Iranian shipment of rockets, grenades and mortar shells that were believed to be on their way to separatists in the Senegalese region of Casamance, possibly via Gambia. According to the BBC, the Nigerian government promised to report the seizure to the Security Council if it was shown to be in violation of UN sanctions. Bloomberg news reported that thirteen vessels were intercepted and one Iranian, and three Nigerians were charged with unlawfully importing weapons. In response, Gambia cut ties with Iran and ordered its diplomats out of the country, Iranian officials believe it was due to US pressure. Senegal also withdrew its ambassador from Iran in December after allegations that the arms could have led to the deaths of Senegalese soldiers. Five weeks later, Iran’s interim foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi pledged to offer $200 million for joint economic projects. Afterwards President Abdoulaye Wade told his country’s ambassador to return to Tehran. Previous plans to open a second Khodro facility in Dakar were shelved in November as the government decided to reconsider future projects, as a result of the “diplomatic incident”.

Recently a string of other African have had second thoughts about its dealing with the Islamic Republic. Many realize that it may be wiser to keep the country out for fear of losing substantial injections of foreign aid from the United States and the European Union. However, if there is money to be made, many governments may find it hard to resist. Today being isolated by the west is no longer a sure-fire way to impoverishment. Yet, Iran will have to work to show that it is sincere in its efforts to support Africa’s poorest states, and harbours no secret agenda. In return it gets votes at the UN and muffled voices over its human rights record. What more could it ask for?

Daddy’s Little Girl

Dear Folks,

Well, I am pleased to say that this is my 50th post, and I am excited because I never thought that I would be able to make it this far. I really didn’t! I have the attention span of a green-fly, and procrastination is a word, that for me, has endured long since I left university, which in my opinion, is a mecca for procrastinators. The excuses, the excuses! I always found a reason to wander down to our cute little Starbucks to fill up on mocha shakes, chocolate biscuits and milky-coffee mush in any form to break from the sheer dullness of having to write some paper. The hours spent lingering over notes taken from books; the writing and rewriting of that crucial first paragraph and thinking: “wow, when this essay is over, I am going to spend all Friday night watching Sex and the City without moving with a box of fridge cake in my lap”. However once it is complete, you are usually-or should I say, I, usually am so bleary eyed from throwing an all-nighter, drinking anything, and I mean anything with caffeine or sugar, that I just want to throw the paper in my professor’s pigeon-hole and fall into bed, and of course, invariably, I would wake up the next morning feeling guilty about the caffeine fuelled antics undertaken to finish a stupid paper, that I would swear to be more organized and productive next time. Yes, next time! That is a safe bet. Anyway, after that long-winded intro, I wanted to inform you, that this blog has been crucial in helping me tackle my writer’s block and give me a chance to discuss issues which I truly love, and mean something to me. So, I want to say to all of you out there, I love you soooo much!!!!

Central Asia is a vast region, full of oil, water, gas, radical Islamists and some of the world’s most bizarrely named leaders. One of the largest and most developed countries is Uzbekistan. It sits along the ancient Silk Road and is the home of the beautiful cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the authoritarian Islam Karimov has been at the helm. He has a fierce reputation and has no time for critics. In April 2011, Human Rights Watch was kicked out of the country, and in 2005 foreign media was banned due to reports of widespread government abuse and the routine crushing of dissent.  Opponents of the regime are often subject to torture and horrendous stories have emerged of Karimov’s enemies being boiled alive. However, the west has not made life too difficult for him, as the country is a key transport hub for the US military and  acts as a key supply line to Afghanistan. In 2005, the regime was blamed for the killing of protesters in the eastern city of Andijan, after which, in a fit of anger, Karimov closed down the US airbase at Karshi-Khanabad and he decided to court the attention of Russia.  It did not take long however for the west to ease  its position, as it sought easy access to Central Asian fuel sources.

One issue which poses a tremendous problem for Karimov is the threat of Islamic extremists, who operate in the Fergana Valley and regularly carry out hit and run attacks on Uzbek troops. Wahhabis backed by Saudi Arabia ensure that alcohol is banned, women are forced to cover, and the capital, Tashkent has seen its share of terror attacks orchestrated by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan IMU, which takes its inspiration from the Taliban. Hundreds of suspected members have been arrested and the United States government has given Karimov generous grants of up to $150 million USD to tackle this problem. US Green Berets train Uzbek soldiers and carry out joint exercises with the aim to defeat Islamic insurgents.

However Uzbekistan is also a place where corruption is pumped through the water system. People refer to the practice of bribery and kickbacks as uzbekchilik or Uzbekness. The regime has formed links with mafia groups who make it almost impossible for ordinary Uzbeks to set up companies or spread their entrepreneurial wings. The society is tightly controlled;  a system of councils called, mohalla, run by male elders monitor community comings and goings, and the capital is saturated with members of the National Security Service. No one dares to speak out and there is little chance of any mass opposition coming to the fore anytime soon.

Far from living under the blowtorch of the regime, Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara talks about her country with nauseating optimism. She has become an object of international attention after Wikileaks released US diplomatic cables in 2010, which revealed that she is the single most hated woman in the country.  Gulnara is a towering central Asian beauty. Her hair is usually layered effortlessly on her shoulders; lips caramelized with gloss and she talks with a kind of saccharine sincerity, as if she is competing to be Miss World.  On paper, she is highly accomplished, and listing Miss Karimova’s achievements could make you quiver; however given that her father is a thorough-bred kleptocrat, it leaves few guesses as to how she clawed here way to the top. Today, there is almost no aspect of political, economic and cultural life inside Uzbekistan that the Harvard-educated Karimova does not play a role. On the frivolous side, she is a pop singer called Googoosha, who has sung with Julio Iglesias. She writes poetry, designs jewellery, organizes cultural festivals, where top singers such as Sting come to play, and owns a fashion label called Guli, which retails in Tashkent and Moscow. She also teaches world economy and diplomacy at the University of Tashkent and has innumerable ties to Uzbek-based firms.

She began her career working in the Department of Political Analysis and Forecast in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and later became an adviser to the foreign affairs minister. Her father then sent her to Moscow to work as a counsellor in the Uzbek embassy. In 2008, she was appointed as the country’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, and was also Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Spain.  Little by little, not content with being a traditional Uzbek woman, Gulnara’s avarice started to rampage. She obtained holdings in Dubai, Geneva, as well as a retail complex, nightclubs and a holiday resort. At any time a successful company in Uzbekistan could expect a knock at the door by Miss Karimova. It is widely reported that she had links to Zeromax, which was a mega firm, involved in oil, gas, mining transport and agriculture. It generated hundreds of millions in revenue. According to Foreign Policy magazine Zeromax was “essentially one of the facades behind which Gulnara Karimova continues to tighten her grip on any and all available sources of income in the country by any means she deems necessary with little or no regard for legal niceties”. According to Wikileaks, one businessman from the US, who turned down Miss Karimova’s offer to buy into the telecommunications firm, Skytel, had its frequency jammed by the Uzbek government.

Gulnara’s influential role inside Uzbekistan, was first brought to the fore in 2002 following her divorce from Afghan-American businessman Mansur Maqsudi, who was known for setting up a Coca Cola bottling plant in Tashkent. He fought for custody of their two children, and a court in New Jersey even issued a warrant for Gulnara’s arrest when she refused to attend the custody hearing. Gulnara accused him of selling oil from Saddam Hussein, while he claimed she was sending Uzbek prostitutes to Dubai. Regardless, back in Uzbekistan, Maqsudi’s business interests started to crumble: tax and fire inspectors, customs men and government agents descended on his bottling plant.  Maqsudi, his brother and father were accused of tax evasion, corruption, and twenty-four members of his family were deported at gunpoint to Afghanistan. Needless to say, Gulnara got a little of what she wanted with the help of daddy Karimov.

In his early seventies, it is reported that Uzbekistan’s strong man is not well, and Gulnara could be a possible successor. However, it remains to be seen if she will be able to induce the same loyalty and fear as her father. For the moment, she remains insouciant, doing interviews for women’s magazines and accumulating vast wealth; although she of all people would never want to give the impression that she is anything less than a hardworking businesswoman, philanthropist and mother. In a 2010 interview for ELLE magazine, Gulnara said “Despite the impression I make on people in terms of my appearance, in my personal life I am not pretentious. For me, understanding is above all. Mutual understanding. If you have that, you can adapt to any rhythm of life. But to make this happen, you have to go through quests, trials and tribulations, peaks and troughs, work hard on yourself and learn from mistakes”. Ordinary Uzbeks would probably say Miss Karimova is not learning fast enough.

The Enigmatic Sultan Qaboos

Dear Folks,

I am not normally drawn to the incomprehensible and  ephemeral  world of fashion, but I am truly drawn to the goddess of  the glossy pages, Vogue’s Anna Wintour. I find her razor-sharp bob, shrinking frame and her dismissive tone so utterly delightful, perhaps because, as someone who dreams of editing a magazine one day, Wintour’s demeanour speaks volumes about her self-discipline and drive to succeed, which is something I always wish to emulate. I just have to overcome my love  of late morning lie-ins, rich chocolate and an addiction to amazon.com . Oh well, all in good time I suppose.

Anyway, the Persian Gulf is home to many sheikhdoms, kingdoms and sultanates. One of the most understated and least talked about is the Sultanate of Oman. Unlike the tattered state of Yemen which resembles a bad-tempered toddler, Oman is the well-behaved sibling, of three million, which has surprisingly managed to cultivate good relations, with, well, everybody. The man at the helm is Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said. He has been on the throne since 1970, after he overthrew his father in a coup. At the time Oman truly was a backwater; few people could afford health care and many children were deprived of an education. Qaboos promised the people that he would “transform your life into a prosperous one”–and he did.

According to the International Monetary Fund, in 1970 Oman’s GDP was $256 million, but in 2009, it was $ 53.4 bn. Unlike many of its neighbours, Oman has managed to integrate the population into its economy. In response to the “Arab Spring” uprising, the government plans to expand its programme of “Omanisation” to replace foreign staff in the country. Qaboos has endorsed education programmes which ensure that Oman can reduce its depenence on an expatriate workforce.

Like many leaders in the Middle East and particularly the Gulf, Oman is not a free society and Qaboos sings from the same hymn sheet as many authoritarian rulers do. He has seen to it that where democracy could hurt him, it cannot flourish. He has bestowed upon himself the positions of prime minister, defence minister and finance minister. The UK’s Guardian newspaper cites that no public meetings may take place without government approval; no criticism of the Sultan is tolerated and in Oman, the state decides who has the right to be a journalist.

Yet, despite the grievances of corruption, cronyism and youth unemployment, Oman is regarded fortunate to have Qaboos as a leader. Even journalist Robert Kaplan noted ” I have never encountered a place in the Arab world so well-governed as Oman, and in such a quiet and understated way”. No other ruler could be as fortunate to have Saudi Arabia, the United States, which signed a contract to upgrade the country’s military installations and even,surprisingly, the Islamic Republic of Iran as firm allies. During the Iran-Iraq war and later during the Gulf War, Qaboos maintained solid relations with both the Iranians and the Iraqis.Oman also has a stable relationship with Israel. In 1979, Oman was the only state to recognize Anwar Sadat’s peace agreement with Israel and in 1994, it was the first country in the Gulf Cooperation Council to host Arab-Israeli talks. His foreign affairs minister even attended Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral.

The Sultan is a unique breed. He was educated privately in England and attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He married his cousin, but the marriage was not a match made in heaven and they later divorced. He has no heir apparent and his plans for  succession are a little odd.  Once he dies, the  family have three days to decide on a successor, but if they are not able to reach a conclusion, they must open a letter written by the late Sultan which includes the names of those whom he wishes to see as his heir. But most likely, it will be Assad bin Tariq al-Said, who is the Sultan’s Special Representative.

Sultan Qaboos also enjoys some of life’s finer things. He likes horse riding, tennis, the opera and plays both the organ and the flute. In 1985, he established the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra. One of the Sultan’s more unusual or unique claims to fame is his creation of one of the world’s most expensive fragrances. His brand Amouage was created in 1983 as a tribute to the Omani tradition of perfumery. The fragrance is composed of dozens of base notes, but none more so than frankincense. Oman is a country that is doused in the smell of this resin which comes from the Boswellia tree and is used to  welcome new guests to one’s home and the Sultan gives a bottle of Amouage to his state visitors.

Apart from his entrepreneurial ventures, most of all Sultan Qaboos has succeeded in rising above the clamour of divisions and tension which exist among Oman’s neighbours. His pursuit of pragmatism and stable relations is what makes the country so unique. He inherited a state heaving under socio-economic complaints; Marxist rebels were fighting a separatist conflict in the south-west of the country, but within five years of taking control, he had turned Oman’s fortunes around. Through the help of foreign forces, he brought the Dhuffar rebellion to an end, and in regards to the economy, he understood early on that the country could not depend solely on the hydrocarbon sector for its future earnings. Qaboos implemented reforms that were vital in empowering the population and for most Omanis, they know of no other leader or kind of leadership, and thus whoever succeeds him will have a tough act to follow.

The Bombing of Osiraq

Dear Folks,

Well, everybody, it was thirty years ago this month that Israel carried out one of its most audacious attacks against the Iraqi French-build reactor Osiraq. For years this event has been a source of fascination for historians, journalists and of course, the public at large. It has influenced the course of the nuclear arms race in the Middle East and changed the way Iraq’s neighbour Iran has set about developing its own capacity to develop nuclear power. The attack even surprised Israel’s closest ally the United States, and once again showed the Israeli finesse at taking decisive unilateral action. However, the story of how the plan was conceived and executed was the result of years of painstaking diplomatic work and shrewd intelligence.

The Beginnings

In the early 1970s,Israel’s defences were sorely tested during the Yom Kippur war, which without the help of the US, it is conceivable that the Arabs would have secured a victory. It left Israel shaken and determined to avert future attacks from its neighbours. A nuclear attack or the possession of nuclear arms by countries hostile to Israel was a headache for its leaders and one that would have to be dealt with care.

In 1976 French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, in a bid to boost trade links, agreed to  sell Iraq an  OSIRIS-type material testing reactor MTR, as well as a small reactor, known as Tammuz 1 and Tammuz 2. An MTR is designed to test materials and their reaction when exposed to prolonged radiation. This was not the first type of the reactor which the Iraqis had intended to purchase, as previously the French refused to sell them a graphite reactor which can produce plutonium. Construction of the Osiraq or Tammuz reactor facility began in 1979 and was located 12 miles southeast of the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

Israeli Reaction

Israel met the proposed Iraqi-French deal with horror. In 1979 Israeli intelligence estimated that by 1982,Iraq would have acquired the equipment necessary to build nuclear weapons. It was therefore in the country’s interest that no countries sell low-grade nuclear fuel to Iraq and attempts were made to persuade both France and Italyto refrain from doing this. A covert plan by Israeli intelligence was set in motion in order to disrupt Iraq’s nuclear programme. The plan was given the name Operation Sphinx and the external intelligence agency Mossad was tasked with gathering information and targeting sites where equipment was waiting to be shipped to Iraq. On April 6, 1979, in La Seyne-sur-Mer near Marseilles, three bombs exploded in the nuclear facility at the firm of Constructions Navales et Industrielles de la Méditerranée. The energy company was storing reactor cores for the installation. The attack is estimated to have set the Iraqis back by six months. Other companies involved with supplying Osiraq, such as: SNIA-Techint, Ansaldo Mercanico Nucleare and Techniatome were also targeted by Mossad. In June 1980, an Egyptian nuclear physicist working for Iraq’s Energy Commission was killed in a hotel room in Paris. He was in the country to check on highly enriched uranium that was to be sent as fuel to the reactor. However despite the best efforts of Israeli intelligence, the plan to thwart the project from abroad could only buy time and it was looking more likely that the only solution was a pre-emptive strike before July 1981, which was estimated to be the date that the Tammuz 2 reactor would be operational.

Decision Time

In September 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, which set off the bitter eight year Iran-Iraq war. In the same month, the Iranians, unsuccessfully with the help of two F-4 Phantoms, tried to bomb the Tammuz reactor. Realising that such incidents would only propel the Iraqis to speed up the programme, the Israeli government knew that time was running out if a strike was to be successfully carried out. However, senior Israeli officials had misgivings about launching an attack. Prime Minister Menachem Begin was very much in favour, as well as other senior figures including agricultural minister Ariel Sharon. But many were opposed such as foreign minister Moshe Dayan and Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin. They worried that such an attack could have enormous repercussions for Israel’s position in the eyes of the international community. There was also the possibility of retaliation, not to mention enflaming the rest of the Arab world. What the Americans would say was also a factor. Nevertheless Begin was determined and he believed that members of Israel’s Labour party would not have the stomach to launch an attack. Yet in October 1980, the Israeli cabinet voted 10-6 in favour of striking the reactor.

The Ticking Clock

The pilots chosen to carry out the attack had a monumental task ahead of them. They would have to fly 2000 km in hostile territory carrying bombs and fuel.  Eight newly delivered F-16s and 2 F-15 interceptors would fly them to their target. The head of the mission Col. Zeev Raz never believed that all pilots would return safely. The pilots received training in Utah, but one pilot told the BBC that none of them had flown “more than 100 missions in an F-16, which is not a lot, and the whole plane was completely new, its limitations were not completely clear, we were still learning.” . F-16s, known as, vipers, are highly reliable aircraft and can fly long range sorties without refuelling. They can fly in all weather and can destroy other aircraft in the sky and targets on the ground. In order to carry out the attack, the pilots would have to put their faith in the capacity of these aircraft to bring them back safely.

The Day of the Attack

On June 7, around 4pm local Israeli time, the mission was ordered. Aside from Col. Raz, amongst the pilots was Ilan Ramon, who would later go on to become the country’s first astronaut. Before the planes took off, there were concerns that the runway at Etzion would not be suitable for the planes to gain altitude. Fortunately all ten planes took off, but once in the air, they had to maintain a maximum height of 394ft, as they wanted to avoid detection by radar, particularly over Saudi airspace where US-built AWACS or airborne radar systems were operating. Once they reached Iraqi airspace, the planes descended to a nail biting height of 30 m. At 18:35 the planes honed in on the Tammuz 1 reactor. One of the pilots told the BBC that when he spotted the reactor, he noted: “it glistened with the sun shining from the low west”. According to the news service, the pilots prepared for the attack by climbing to a height of 2,130 m, and from this altitude the F-16s hurtled towards the reactor at a speed of 1,100 km/h. Every five seconds, pairs of 1000 kg bombs were dropped, at least sixteen in total, although two failed to detonate. For those near the reactor, the attack came as a complete surprise. The BBC reported that a young British man who was at Baghdad University was caught off guard, as normally during the war, an air raid siren would be sounded, but this time he heard a loud explosion and saw smoke rising from the other side of the Tigris river. The young quantity surveyor recalled how “all hell broke out as every gun in the city fired off, but of course it was too late. The planes were already on their way back”. At least ten Iraqi soldiers and one French civilian researcher was killed.

Completion

After the Israeli pilots completed their bombing run, the F-16s accelerated to reach a high altitude to avoid fire from anti-aircraft batteries on the ground. The planes raced back to Israel, as they could not afford to waste time with their limited fuel. The BBC reported that when they returned to their base they were left with only 450 kg of fuel, which left them with just 270 km in the air. Upon their arrival, they were sent to Tel Aviv to relay the details of the mission.Israel’s chief of staff at the time, Gen. Rafael Eitan, told the pilots that Israel would not admit to carrying out the attack; however not long after the country  admitted its involvement and the United Nations Security Council condemned the attack. Even the US did not support the action by its closest ally in the Middle East. It briefly suspended the sale of fighter aircraft toIsrael.Britain considered the Osiraq attack as “a grave breach of international law”. According to UNSC Resolution 487, issued on June 19, it condemned the attack and even stipulated “Iraq is entitled to appropriate redress for the destruction it has suffered”. There were many who speculated if the reactor truly posed a direct threat to Israel. Iraq was also a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and was subject to oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

After Osiraq

If Saddam had been allowed to continue construction of the reactor, it is feasible that Iraq could have obtained nuclear arms, which would have had a considerable impact on the first Gulf War. At the time of the Osiraq attack, Iraq was bogged down trying to battle the Iranians, and thus did not retaliate; but throughout the 80s, Saddam Hussein would go on to diversify his nuclear ambitions. One former assistant director from the International Atomic Energy Agency, David Fischer, argues that in hindsight “it is obvious that the Iraqi government did plan to make the bomb”. Although the Israeli’s carried out an ambitious attack and succeeded, it did not snuff out Saddam Hussein’s desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction that would be used against Iranians and later the Kurds. The Iranian government has learnt from their neighbours and has made sure that its own nuclear sites are properly fortified and spread over a wider area. No Osiraq-style attack would be effective and it would take a sustained attack by both air and sea to achieve similar aims. We can only wait and see if any moves will be made. Without question, it has become the interminable “Waiting for Godot” scenario for the Middle East.