Archive for the Middle Eastern History Category

Afghanistan: the Lost Peace

Posted in Democracy, Middle Eastern History, Middle Eastern Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2009 by desertexile

President Obama has been deliberating over the last few months whether or not he should increase the amount of troops in Afghanistan.  It’s been a hot topic, with the President facing mounting public displeasure with his failure to end the wars that Bush started while in office. The reason for these deliberations is the resurgence of the Taliban, which has led the top brass in Afghanistan to request more troops to combat it.

So, what is really happening with Afghanistan?

The answer can be found in a desolate, snowy pass in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.  Somewhere, buried by the passage of time, lay the remains of thousands upon thousands of British soldiers, casualties of the first British expedition to Afghanistan in 1842.  A gloomy foreshadowing of things to come.

What did these men die for? The same could be asked of the hundreds of US soldiers who have given their lives up in Afghanistan over the last eight years. The same could be asked of the thousands of Russian soldiers who died during the Soviet Union’s brutal attempt in the 80s to impose Communism on the country.

But in fact, Afghanistan is not a country. Afghanistan is the name given to an artificially created region that acted as a buffer zone between British India and Tsarist Russia. It was never meant to be a country – in fact, its borders were drawn specifically so that ethnic and tribal differences would prevent a strong, unified government – and it probably will never be a country, in the proper sense of the word. Afghanistan, in truth, is a territory in which reside a disparate collection of hostile tribes that have been fighting each other for centuries.

In a place rent asunder by such tribalism and fratricide, one can expect lawless people to thrive.  Osama bin Laden, after his exile from Saudi Arabia and Sudan, settled on Afghanistan as a promising venue for his fledgling Al Qaeda movement.  From there, he planned the 9/11 attacks and expanded the Al Qaeda network, recruiting many of the mujahideen or “strugglers” who had fought Soviet troops in Afghanistan ten years before.  The 9/11 attacks elicited a predictable response: the United States invaded Afghanistan under the banner of the UN within a matter of months, in hot pursuit of the man who had wrought destruction on American soil, and to topple the Taliban regime that had harbored him.

The Taliban regime could hardly have been called a regime, since in truth it controlled little more than the streets of Kabul.  Historically, no government in Afghanistan has ever controlled the entire country.  The regime fell with barely any resistance, leaving the US and its allies to find Osama bin Laden.

Yet the US seemed to have other goals in mind as well, one of which was to give Afghanistan a democratic government. The logic was simple: democratic governments are stable and more competent, and have a wider support base among citizens. So give Afghanistan a democratic government and it will be able to control the country, rooting out the likes of Osama bin Laden and other “terrorists.” The experiment has been unsuccessful, and the Americans and their allies now face Afghanistan’s age-old problem: how to control a motley bunch of quarrelsome tribes and ethnicities. Afghanistan continues to be as lawless as ever.

The philosophy of toppling dictatorships and attempting to create democracies in their place has proven misguided in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with the latter descending into a debilitating war between international forces and the Taliban.  I can think of several reasons why democracy isn’t working and the war should end.

1. Like I said before, Afghanistan is not a country but a territory created by outside powers. This means that Afghanis have no sense of being “one nation” with a single identity. They identify most closely with their clan, followed by their tribe, followed by their ethnicity, and last, with the nation itself. Without this sense of being a nation, Afghanis will not want to be part of a nation, but will gravitate instead towards their tribal or ethnic identities.

2. We are supporting a highly corrupt warlord-gone-president, who is largely interested in milking the system to his own benefit.  This is the reason why the Afghan insurgency has a popular base for fighting us.  In the last three months alone, Hamid Karzai has stuffed ballot boxes and bought off rivals.  He is certainly sympathetic to the US – if we left, his government would fall immediately – but he is not interesting in reforming or giving up any power.  No doubt he is betting that because we don’t want to leave the country to the Taliban, we won’t leave him high and dry by withdrawing from Afghanistan. So he thinks he can do whatever he wants.

The irony of the whole situation is that if we withdraw, the Taliban would not be able to control Afghanistan any more than Karzai could.  Their support base is just as narrowly ethnic and tribal as Karzai’s.  In the meantime, continued support of a corrupt and tribal president damages our already-tarnished democratic credentials throughout the Muslim world, and puts our troops at danger of attack from enemies of Karzai. What is the incentive to stay?


Who’s Your Daddy? Tribalism revisited.

Posted in Democracy, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Middle Eastern History, Middle Eastern Politics, Oman, Palestine with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2009 by desertexile

This blog isn’t only about life and society, but also about conflict.

Let’s revisit Umm Wasfi, whom I introduced last post.  What I didn’t tell you, is that in her house there is a small, black-and-white picture of a young man. I have never seen him before.  He was Umm Wasfi’s younger brother, and he was killed as a young soldier in the the 1967 war between Israel and the Arabs.  Why did he have to die? Why did those young men who were killed on the Israeli side have to die? And why are American soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan now?

When considering conflict in the Middle East, and more specifically the Arab world, one must always keep in mind the balance of loyalties in Arab society. The Western-style nation state has failed spectacularly in that part of the world, and with good reason.  I wouldn’t blame the British, despite that they didn’t even pretend to create democratic systems but simply played kingmaker.  Nor would I blame the many invasions and interventions and so-called “meddling” from America and the West.  No, the problems plaguing the nation-state lie with the Arabs themselves.

It’s the very Western-ness of the nation-state as a political system that has thus far doomed it to fail.  The Arabs are a relational people.  Loyalty lies first with those closest to you, beginning with your immediate family, and then extends to your more distant relatives and your friends, your clan, and finally, with the tribe.  Arabs in the past have rarely had close inter-tribal relationships, since different tribes live in different areas.  And so down, almost at the very bottom of the list, is the Arab’s loyalty to his country, and to the Arabs as a people.

That’s not to say that the nation state cannot succeed in the Arab world.  And in some places, the idea of the nation, once an artificial creation of Britain or some other country, has begun to take hold.  In Oman, for instance, there is considerable national pride.  The Sultan is a sharp man, and has taken great pains to cultivate it.  Holidays such as “National Day,” celebrated in November, feature genuine expressions of Omani nationalism.  But it is difficult to erase centuries upon centuries of tribalism, and in times of crisis, tribalism can often resurface. When push comes to shove, an Arab can be expected to line up behind his fellow tribesmen.

Almost everywhere in the Middle East, the nation-state still enjoys very little real legitimacy beyond a superficial level.  A long-lived, successful nation-state with a stable government, spanning several generations, might have a chance at relaxing tribal bonds.  But as of yet, no such country exists.

What does all this mean for conflicts, past, current and future?

It means two things: that when conflict does happen, it happens along tribal boundaries (usually exacerbated by sectarian differences).  And that it usually happens for a reason: when the balance of power between the tribes shifts, and a new status quo has to be established.

There is, however, another factor in addition to tribalism that has played a pivotal role in nearly all Middle Eastern conflicts in the last century.  Contact with the West, first through direct and indirect imperialism and then through the West’s voracious appetite for oil, has caused the two worlds to collide.  Their relationship has been overwhelmingly characterized by a Western presence in the Arab world, rather than Arabs in the West.  I’m talking about the advent of Western imperialism and interventionism.

In fact – the arrival of Western countries as major players in Arab politics has been one of the major, direct causes of conflict.  Rather than treading lightly so as not to upset the status quo, countries such as Britain, France and America knowingly or unknowingly tipped the balances in favor of a particular tribal, sectarian or ethnic group, setting the powder keg of Middle Eastern politics alight.

In future posts, I will try to communicate how these disasters are occurring today, even as I write – from Lebanon to Iraq to Afghanistan to Israel.

Let’s eat goat meat.

Posted in Democracy, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Middle Eastern History, Middle Eastern Politics, Oman, Palestine with tags , , , , , , , on June 28, 2009 by desertexile

bedouinBedouin tribesmen, cultural ancestors of all Arabs, have led a simple life since the beginning of time. Life in the desert has to be simple.  Put bluntly, one must find water in order to survive.  Water is more precious than gold, more costly than blood. And the wells, the sources of water, must be protected from outsiders. In an environment where resources are finite and scarce, one could hardly expect hospitality and generosity to be prominent cultural values.  And yet Arabs are one of the most hospitable people on the planet. For a close look at the specific reasons behind Arab hospitality and its manifestations, the Defense Language Institute has put out an excellent guide called Culture of the Arab World.

If rule of law is the primary value of Western society, then hospitality is the law of the Arab world.  Arabs will literally bankrupt themselves for the sake of entertaining guests.  A Westerner gains notability in his community for being an upright, law-abiding citizen.  An Arab becomes well-liked for being hospitable to guests.

I remember, as a child, camping with friends in the desert. Camping in Oman is free – all one must do is go somewhere relatively uninhabited and pitch camp. One of the families I was camping with suffered a flat tire, so we were within eyeshot of a small concrete house.  That evening, a bedouin woman drove into camp on a pickup truck. She brought platters of fruit with her – far more than we could ever eat.  (It would be shameful if she were to bring so little that we could eat it all and she would be left with nothing to give.)  Watermelons, grapes, oranges, apples, bananas, mangos, and the ubiquitous bowl of dates.  She greeted the women, unloaded the fruit from the pickup, spread a mat in the center of our camp, and proceeded to cut the fruit in pieces and put them in our hands.  She came back every night with a bigger spread each time.  We were foreigners in the neighborhood, and it would have been shameful if she hadn’t shown us hospitality. On our third night, we told her that we would be leaving. She immediately insisted that we come to her house the next morning, and she would slaughter a goat for lunch.  We were total strangers just passing through, and yet her family was willing to empty its pockets to entertain us.

When viewed in such a light, the tribal desert culture of the Arab world with its emphasis on hospitality and relationships and its de-emphasis on law is perhaps less repulsive than before.  Both nation-states and tribal societies have their drawbacks. Tribal society can at its worst collapse in fratricide, while the rule of law in the West can at times harbor injustice.  But at their best, both tribal society and Western-style democracy have the potential to foster a vibrant society.

Oman: Jewel of Arabia

Posted in Oman with tags , on June 28, 2009 by desertexile

Perched precariously on the eastern tip of Arabia, Oman seems to cling to the very edge of the peninsula, as if at any moment it might fall into the Arabian Sea.  Remote and mountainous, it is by far the most beautiful of the oil-producing Persian Gulf states.  In the north of the country tower the Hajar Mountains, a rugged limestone spine of bare rock that millions of years ago was pushed up from the sea bed by an incredible tectonic force.  Although the mountains themselves are bare, they are riven throughout by valleys and canyons, or wadis, where rainwater flows during rare downpours.  Some wadis hold water year-round, providing a source of water for plants and sheltering small wildlife. In the south of the country, the desert turns green every summer as seasonal monsoon storms batter the coastline.

Ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said since 1970, the country has come from rags to riches in the last forty years.  Formerly as poor a country as Bangladesh or Haiti, rumor has it that the previous sultan (Said bin Taimur) kept the entire treasury of the country beneath his bed. Since then, the development of Oman’s significant oil reserves has brought banks, six-lane highways, a plethora of five-star hotels, and one of the world’s highest-rated health systems. Not to mention hundreds of thousands of guest workers.

The view from Fort Nakhl, near the town of Sohar. Note the contrast between the irrigated date palm plantations and the bone-dry mountains. Credit: User arminwiegel at

The view from Fort Nakhl, on the northern Batinah coast of Oman. Note the contrast between the irrigated date palm plantations and the bone-dry mountains.

Forts are one of Oman’s major tourist attractions, along with pristine beaches and lush wadis. There is a fort in virtually every single town or village.  Most are built on the highest point in the settlement, and like medeival European forts are well-protected and boast thick walls. Many have their own water supply.  In addition to the forts, one can comfortably view old, mud-brick watchtowers situated on the tops of mountains, as one drives down the highway at high speed in an air-conditioned car.  It must have taken an amazing feat of logistics and engineering to construct an edifice in such an inaccessible place.

Yet these structures were not built for aesthetics or pleasure any more than the Crac des Chevaliers in Syria was built for its refined architecture.  Oman’s past is a turbulent one, full of tribal wars and fratricide.  Until the 1960s, many forts were still in use, some as prisons and some in their original capacity. The watchtowers served as lookouts, to alert one tribe of imminent attack from its neighbors.  For millenia, tribalism has reigned supreme in Oman.  The current Sultan, a firm but benevolent absolute monarch, has managed to keep the lid on the low-level conflict typical of tribal societies, but forty short years are unlikely to erase history. Tribal family names and distinct geographical tribal areas are still very much present in Oman.

Plenty of evidence testifies to the measures necessary to hold such a fragmented society together.  Two hours’ drive south of the capital, Muscat, lie the mudbrick ruins of the village of Tanuf.  The villagers of Tanuf were part of a tribal connurbation that had loosely supported a rival leader to the Sultan in Muscat.  During the 1950s, they joined a movement later named the Imamate rebellion, refusing to accept the sultan as their ruler on the grounds that he had no religious credentials.  (Most Omanis belong to the Ibadhi sect of Islam, which maintains that the political leader of the nation should also be its spiritual leader, or Imam.) In response, Qaboos’s father bombed their village to pieces. Source: Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE, by Anthony Cordesman

One cannot afford, in Middle Eastern tribal society, to show weakness or softness.  If the Sultan had “gone easy” on the rebels, he would have shown weakness.  New challenges to his authority could have arisen from other, more powerful, rival tribes.  But by asserting his authority and crushing the movement before it dragged the nation into bloodier tribal wars and civil disarray, the Sultan created the conditions whereby he could develop Oman into a modern country.

Was he justified? Perhaps in realpolitik terms. One can at least understand the rationale behind his actions, if not agree with them. (The British, who supplied him with the planes, were very understanding.) Oman, under the rule of the sultans, is today one of the most stable countries in the Middle East.  And yet, in Western terms, the underlying “problem” of tribalism in Oman has not yet been solved. If the source of central authority were to disappear, one could fully expect tribalism to reassert itself in full force.

Of Camels and Arabs

Posted in Oman on June 27, 2009 by desertexile

“So did you ride a camel to school?”

Too often, the mention of the Middle East conjures up romantic images of Lawrence of Arabia, of men on horseback, or camel-back, if you will, streaming across the desert, cloaks billowing in the wind, dust flying behind them, sporting outrageous headdresses and wielding scimitars and rifles.

For those who know so little about the region, it’s hard for them to reconcile such images with the reality of day-to-day life.  I grew up in the Middle East, but needless to say, I didn’t ride a camel school.  But in a Lawrence-of-Arabia setting, what would I ride?

In this blog, I’m going to try give others a perspective that they might not encounter elsewhere. Obviously, “did you ride a camel to school” is an extreme example of misinformation. And most people don’t really subscribe to Lawrence’s version of Arabia, although it might hover in the background.  But nevertheless, a great deal of mystique still envelops the near Orient in the minds of most Westerners. I hope to shed a little light on the subject.

As a long-time resident of the Sultanate of Oman, a small country on the eastern tip of the Arabian peninsula, I’ll be writing a little bit about Oman.  I will also write about countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, Egypt, the Arab world at large, and the conflicts, recent and ancient, that frustrate kings and presidents and boggle the minds of outsiders.

Welcome. Or, in Arabic – Ahhlan wa Sahhlan.