Politics & Policy

Sharm El Sheikh Journal, Part IV

Welcome to the fourth installment, which is the second-to-the-last — or, as they say in fancier quarters, the penultimate. For Parts I-III, go here, here, and here. And, to remind you, we are doing “Davos in the Desert” — attending the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

In Part I, I mentioned King Abdullah and his speech. (I speak of the Jordanian king, not the Saudi — the Saudi does not seem the conferencing type.) Let me go back to that speech for a moment.

In the course of his remarks, Abdullah said,

The link between business and development falls in the area that has come to be called corporate social responsibility. There are those who think of CSR as a new term for charity or a kind of public relations. I don’t believe that we in the Middle East could ever make that mistake. Comprehensive development is a pillar of our economic future.

And so on. When he said, “There are those who think of CSR as a new term for charity or a kind of public relations,” I thought, “Right on.” He might have added, “or as a new kind of tax — the price of doing business.”

I’m afraid that I, along with others, am a tad cynical about “CSR.” Maybe we will see our way out of that cynicism. Maybe not.

‐There is no cause for cynicism where Barham Salih is concerned. The deputy prime minister of Iraq, he is one of the most impressive and valuable people in the Middle East. And he meets a group of us for coffee and a talk.

Salih says that news coverage of Iraq can be misleading: The country has great problems, but is not the disaster that is often portrayed. And Iraq has come a long way in building its security services.

He remembers when the U.S. handed over sovereignty to the Iraqis — that was in 2004. Paul Bremer, the head American in Iraq, came in to see Iyad Alawi, then the country’s prime minister. They all said goodbye. And later, Salih found Alawi “totally bewildered, confused — even somewhat despondent.” Why? Because Iraq had no security. “We have nothing,” said Alawi, “not one unit we can count on.”

But that was then, and now it is different. Salih says that Iraq has made major progress — progress that is “fragile” and “precarious”; but progress all the same. And he is bullish about the future.

He says that Iraq is the largest emerging market you can think of, “because there is nothing in our country that does not require investment.” Moreover, Iraqi oil reserves are triple what has been acknowledged. Salih actually seems excited about this — and he is not, in my experience, one to get excited. He is a calm, precise, steady-on man.

He is strongly for the liberalization of Iraq’s “oil structure.” “Let’s call a spade a spade,” he says: The state cannot hope to do this right; it requires the private sector.

He urges us to go to Kurdistan, to see what investment in Iraq can do. And he says that the Iraqi economy in general “will take off.” And when it does, “it will be very fast.”

One area of the economy that is lagging badly? Agriculture. It is in “a sorry state,” says Salih.

In due course, he comments that Iraq has “been afflicted by a tornado of terrorism.” Therefore, the world should not be too judgmental about Iraq and what it has been able to do thus far. He speaks of being in the U.S. at the time of the Virginia Tech massacre. It was all over television, constantly talked about, analyzed, wept over — the nation seemed “almost traumatized” by this.

Understand, says Salih, that “Iraq has ten Virginia Tech massacres almost every day.”

He says he once sat down with a suicide bomber — or rather, a fellow who had wanted to be a suicide bomber. Salih learned that the fellow had been thoroughly indoctrinated. This poor wretch had been told that, if he blew himself up — along with others, of course — he would be speeded into heaven. In 15 minutes, he would be having lunch or dinner with the Prophet.

This was the fellow’s “passport,” says Salih: a quick way out of despair.

About al-Qaeda and similar groups, Salih says this: “I have learned never to underestimate the depravity — the evil — of organizations of this type.” They will stop at nothing. They take retarded kids and send them into markets, wearing the exploding belts. These groups “have no mercy, no values.”

A journalist asks why the terrorists are killing professors, doctors, and the like. Salih answers thoughtfully.

Iraq, he says, is “the determining factor for the entire Middle East.” It will determine what people expect out of government, what the relation of religion to the state will be, and so on. Salih likes to say that Iraq “is not an island in the remote Pacific.” It is at the heart of the Middle East.

And “the religious fanatics have identified Iraq as an arena that must not be lost to a vision of decent democratic government, supported by Western power.” So they have tried to do everything to disrupt life: cutting off water supplies, blowing up infrastructure, blowing up people — paralyzing the country. Making life impossible.

This always reminds me of the Shining Path in Peru: That is exactly what they did. In fact, the parallel is so striking, so exact, I wrote a piece about it once.

As a result of this “tornado of terror,” says Salih, many of Iraq’s “most competent people” have left the country. And as deputy PM, he knows in particular that “some of the most competent bureaucrats have left.” But, with improved security, people are coming back — “not in droves,” but significantly.

I ask a simple question: whether Iraq can survive an American withdrawal next year. (I, of course, am thinking of the presidential election.) Salih answers that the surge has made a big difference — a positive difference. And he says that what happened in Basra recently is “an important sign”: The government took on the militia “primarily with its own resources,” although with an American presence. And, in once-lost Anbar Province, al-Qaeda has been seriously set back.

But: All of these gains can be reversed if the Americans withdraw too soon. “I expect we will need a military presence for the foreseeable future.” But “the U.S. will be assuming more of a support role and less of a combat role.”

Again, a hasty withdrawal would “risk all the gains that we have achieved.” Iraq has “some distance to go,” says Salih, “before these gains are irreversible.”

And what is the point, say I — or think I — of invading, liberating, suffering, slogging, bleeding, dying, and building, if we are going to risk all this to reversal? Funny how things come back to Vietnam, no?

Someone remarks to Salih, “You are very optimistic.” Salih smiles. He says he seems optimistic when abroad, because people’s view of Iraq is so grim. But at home, Prime Minister Maliki accuses him of pessimism.

What Salih is, is a realist, I believe — a liberal democratic realist. And a realist without being a defeatist. Such people are worth their weight in gold.

‐After this session, I speak to a man — a European — who is by no means a war hawk or a neocon or any other kind of con. He is what you might call a sensible liberal: “a liberal with sanity,” as Ed Koch says (about himself). And he says, “You know, I think they just might pull this off — I think the Iraq War just might work. And wouldn’t my lefty friends go bananas about that! They rejoice in every setback; they wince at every advance.”

He continues: “Those 12 million people who voted, dipping their fingers purple. Do they mean nothing?”

You know the dirty little secret — a secret that is not so secret: There are many, many in the West who are rooting for American failure in Iraq — and for democratic failure. Do they really want the bombers and beheaders in charge? No — they just want to see George W. Bush, the Republican party, and America brought low.

But, to people in Iraq — and to reality, come to that — what is the difference?


‐Around the conference center, Egyptian soldiers stand — armed and ready. Each stands under a little red umbrella, to protect him from the sun. This looks comical — it cannot be helped.

By the way, the British army, in the old days, referred to napping as “Egyptian PT” (meaning physical training). By the look of these fellows, I suspect those days are gone.

‐Should civilized people, at some point, come to an agreement on BlackBerry etiquette? While panels are in session, people freely work their BlackBerries. I have seen panelists do this, too (although I don’t believe at a Davos conference).

You remember how, in my Indian journal (Feb. ’08), I admitted to checking my BlackBerry while on a camel? But in my defense, I had taken out my BlackBerry to use the camera function. And . . .

‐Every other person I meet, it seems, lives in Dubai. Dubai is a crossroads of the world. People who move and shake in the Middle East, in Asia — they live in Dubai. It is the new international city, with people of every race and nation working there — or I guess “based there,” is the better way to put it.

And they say it’s not what you think: a frenzy of building, an ever-expanding, ever-more-garish Vegas. Well, it is that: but it’s also an exceedingly pleasant place to live, with lovely parks for children, and lovely schools — and cheap, able, cheerful domestic help, too.

It could well be that Dubai is the city of the future. Pretty soon, everyone will live there but you and me. And maybe we’ll take off ourselves . . .

So, see you tomorrow, for Part The End?


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