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GQ's website has a detailed account of last year's assassination in Dubai of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, almost certainly by an elite Mossad hit squad, and the investigation that nailed down what happened, written up by Ronen Bergman, an Israeli journalist who writes about intelligence operations (and is the author of The Secret War With Iran):
At 6:45 a.m., the first members of an Israeli hit squad land at Dubai International Airport and fan out through the city to await further instructions. Over the next nineteen hours, the rest of the team—at least twenty-seven members—will arrive on flights from Zurich, Rome, Paris, and Frankfurt. They have come to kill a man named Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, a Hamas leader whose code name within the Mossad—the Israeli intelligence agency—is Plasma Screen.
Then, in 2002, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tapped Dagan, a former military commander with a reputation for ruthless, brutal efficiency, to restore the spy agency to its former glory and preside over, as he put it, "a Mossad with a knife between its teeth." "Dagan's unique expertise," Sharon said in closed meetings, "is the separation of an Arab from his head."Bergman pieces together a chronology of the operation and the investigation that followed, and a list of mistakes committed by the assassins which gave the Dubainese authorities enough to go on to produce a detailed account, all but pinning the operation on Israel.
The laughable attempts of the Mossad operatives to disguise their appearance made for good television coverage, but the more fundamental errors committed by the team had less to do with cloak-and-dagger disguises than with a kind of arrogance that seems to have pervaded the planning and execution of the mission.
A phone carrier in the United Arab Emirates recently pushed out a patch for BlackBerry handsets, which it advertised as a "performance enhancement", but which, on closer examination, turned out to contain a remotely activatable surveillance programme:
The spying program in the patch is switched off by default on installation, but switching it on would be a simple matter of pushing out a command from the server to any device, causing the device to then send a copy of the user’s subsequent e-mail and text messages to the server.I wonder what the story here is; is the UAE's government too cheap to shell out for some of that sweet Nokia Siemens surveillance gear the Iranian government has been reportedly very pleased with? Was the patch planted by other agencies (The Mossad? The Iranian secret service? Organised crime?) Or is Dubai trying to build the world's most elaborate context-based advertising system?
Blog discovery of the day: The Infrastructurist, which focuses on issues such as transport and urban planning, from a largely, though not entirely, US-centric point of view, and has some interesting stories. Such as a LA Times piece on the Dubai model of urbanism, an Economist piece on the Obama administration's US$500bn transport bill (which includes 50 billion for high-speed rail), a Google Maps gallery of six intriguingly shaped communities, a piece on what to do when neo-Nazis decide to sponsor a US highway (the answer: rename it after a civil rights leader), and a gallery of grand railway stations in America, all now long-since demolished.
The Independent has an article on the dark side of Dubai. The economic boom apparently owes itself to the unique and dynamic qualities of Dubai's autocratic legal environment, which short-circuits a lot of the inefficiencies of a more liberal society. For example, if you can lure workers over with promises of wealth, then take their passports, force them to work in inhumane conditions and not bother with paying them, you can achieve miracles of efficiency:
As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat – where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees – for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don't like it, the company told him, go home. "But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket," he said. "Well, then you'd better get to work," they replied.
Sahinal could well die out here. A British man who used to work on construction projects told me: "There's a huge number of suicides in the camps and on the construction sites, but they're not reported. They're described as 'accidents'." Even then, their families aren't free: they simply inherit the debts. A Human Rights Watch study found there is a "cover-up of the true extent" of deaths from heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide, but the Indian consulate registered 971 deaths of their nationals in 2005 alone. After this figure was leaked, the consulates were told to stop counting.That's the construction workers building the marvels of architecture. The maids hired by the ruling classes of Emiratis and expatriates don't have any more rights, and don't have it much better:
The only hostel for women in Dubai – a filthy private villa on the brink of being repossessed – is filled with escaped maids. Mela Matari, a 25-year-old Ethiopian woman with a drooping smile, tells me what happened to her – and thousands like her. She was promised a paradise in the sands by an agency, so she left her four year-old daughter at home and headed here to earn money for a better future. "But they paid me half what they promised. I was put with an Australian family – four children – and Madam made me work from 6am to 1am every day, with no day off. I was exhausted and pleaded for a break, but they just shouted: 'You came here to work, not sleep!' Then one day I just couldn't go on, and Madam beat me. She beat me with her fists and kicked me. My ear still hurts. They wouldn't give me my wages: they said they'd pay me at the end of the two years. What could I do? I didn't know anybody here. I was terrified."The sense of terriblisma is heightened by some choice quotes from some particularly charming-sounding expatriates (mostly found in a tacky British bar):
"If you have an accident here it's a nightmare. There was a British woman we knew who ran over an Indian guy, and she was locked up for four days! If you have a tiny bit of alcohol on your breath they're all over you. These Indians throw themselves in front of cars, because then their family has to be given blood money – you know, compensation. But the police just blame us. That poor woman."
As she says this, I remember a stray sentence I heard back at Double Decker. I asked a British woman called Hermione Frayling what the best thing about Dubai was. "Oh, the servant class!" she trilled. "You do nothing. They'll do anything!"The expatriates, however, are not citizens and have no rights there; life's good for them, but only while they have money to spend and don't rock the boat:
She continued to complain – and started to receive anonymous phone calls. "Stop embarassing Dubai, or your visa will be cancelled and you're out," they said. She says: "The expats are terrified to talk about anything. One critical comment in the newspapers and they deport you. So what am I supposed to do? Now the water is worse than ever. People are getting really sick. Eye infections, ear infections, stomach infections, rashes. Look at it!" There is faeces floating on the beach, in the shadow of one of Dubai's most famous hotels.It gets worse, though: the article starts with the account of a woman who moved there with her husband when he got a senior management job. All was well until he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and resigned to leave; his payoff wasn't enough to cancel their debts, their passports were confiscated, and he was thrown in a debtors' prison.
Of course, it can't last forever; some say the Great Recession could wipe Dubai out:
If a recession turns into depression, Dr Raouf believes Dubai could run out of water. "At the moment, we have financial reserves that cover bringing so much water to the middle of the desert. But if we had lower revenues – if, say, the world shifts to a source of energy other than oil..." he shakes his head. "We will have a very big problem. Water is the main source of life. It would be a catastrophe. Dubai only has enough water to last us a week. There's almost no storage. We don't know what will happen if our supplies falter. It would be hard to survive."This article concurs that Dubai is in a world of trouble, citing the fact that those who have passports and their wits about them are fleeing, abandoning their cars at the airport with the keys still in the ignition before anyone can detain them.
The Principality of Hutt River, Australia's best-known novelty nation, has found itself in the news again, when an Iranian man facing fraud charges in Dubai claimed to be an ambassador of the province and demanded diplomatic treatment. The unnamed defendant is facing several fraud charges, some relating to the issuing of false passports:
Asked to explain why he was not on a list of foreign diplomats, he claimed his state was trying to open an embassy in Dubai and had just recently started the registration process.The Principality of Hutt River's Prince Leonard (known as Leonard Casley to the Australian Tax Office) has admitted to knowing of the man, though denied that he was a Hutt River diplomat.
The latest spectacular project planned for Dubai, no stranger to fantastic knockoffs, is a replica of the French city of Lyons. Named "Lyons-Dubai City" (though Cory Doctorow suggested "Baudrillardville" as a more appropriate name) it will be roughly the size o the Latin Quarter of Paris, and contain "squares, restaurants, cafés and museums".
Halliburton, the US military/engineering contracting firm which made billions from contracts to "rebuild Iraq", which were supplied without bidding (a state of affairs which apparently had nothing to do with them having been headed by US Vice President Dick Cheney), and which has since become a byword for corporate villainy at its most sinister, is now moving its headquarters from Texas to Dubai, apparently to pay less tax on the US taxpayers' money that's funnelled into its gaping maw.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-N.H., called the company's move "corporate greed at its worst." He added, "This is an insult to the U.S. soldiers and taxpayers who paid the tab for their no-bid contracts and endured their overcharges for all these years. At the same time they'll be avoiding U.S. taxes, I'm sure they won't stop insisting on taking their profits in cold hard U.S. cash."Perhaps, after the next election or two, when they indict Cheney for bathing in human blood or whatever, he can flee to Dubai and live there in splendid exile as well?
Mark Davis, the Marxist academic best known for his pre-apocalyptic critiques of Los Angeles, now turns his attention to Dubai, the surrealistically larger-than-life high-tech pleasuredome, built on what is effectively slave labour:
The hotel driver is waiting for you in a Rolls Royce Silver Seraph. Friends have recommended the Armani Hotel in the 160-story tower or the seven-star hotel with an atrium so huge that the Statue of Liberty would fit inside, but instead you have opted to fulfill a childhood fantasy. You always have wanted to be Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
Under his leadership, the coastal desert has become a huge circuit board into which the elite of transnational engineering firms and retail developers are invited to plug in high-tech clusters, entertainment zones, artificial islands, "cities within cities" -- whatever is the latest fad in urban capitalism. The same phantasmagoric but generic Lego blocks, of course, can be found in dozens of aspiring cities these days, but Sheik Mo has a distinctive and inviolable criterion: Everything must be "world class," by which he means number one in The Guinness Book of Records. Thus Dubai is building the world's largest theme park, the biggest mall, the highest building, and the first sunken hotel among other firsts.
An interesting, if characteristically boosterist, WIRED article on Dubai, the United Arab Emirates' high-tech city and a sort of Singapore or Hong Kong of the Middle East:
Last year, only 17 percent of Dubai's gross domestic product came from oil revenue, behind services, transportation, tourism, and hospitality. In comparison, the petroleum sector accounts for 45 percent of Saudi Arabia's GDP.Dubai also stands in contrast to the Saudi kingdom in another Arab-world indicator, the role of women. Where Saudi women are still waiting for the right to drive, Dubai women play a pivotal role in society. "My success means success for other women here," says Sheikha Lubna al Qasimi, the CEO of Tejari, an Internet business-to-business procurement firm, noting that women form 65 percent of Internet City's workforce.
What Dubai is today, Baghdad was 1,200 years ago. "This island, between the Tigris in the east and the Euphrates in the west, is a marketplace for the world," wrote Al Mansur, the eighth-century founder of Baghdad. "It will surely be the most flourishing city in the world."
Dubai is also home to the region's two independent news channels: firstly Al-Jazeera, often touted as the "Arab CNN" (or perhaps the "Arab FOXNews"), and more recently, al-Arabiya, an even further refinement of the formula, without the emotive bluster al-Jazeera, for all its revolutionary changes, still shares with the region's state-run media:
Negm proposed an experiment: No Al Arabiya report could last longer than two and a half minutes. Gone was the long-windedness and speechifying. "You don't have to say that something's a crime against humanity," says Ismail. "If it is, people can see that for themselves. At times of crises people like emotionalism. If you don't respond to emotional needs, you're accused of being detached. But if you do respond to the hurt with emotionalism, it creates a vicious cycle. If we're going to get out of this cycle, we have to be rational, critical."
That rhetoric-wary approach has gotten Al Arabiya in plenty of trouble. Recently, the station clashed with the Palestinian Authority, which expects the Arab press to take up its cause unequivocally and refer to any Palestinians killed by the Israeli Defense Force as martyrs. When one of Al Arabiya's West Bank reporters used instead the politically and religiously neutral word dead, he was rifle-butted by members of Yasser Arafat's ruling Fatah party.
Meanwhile, here is the CIA World Factbook's entry for the UAE. For all its economic liberalism, it's interesting to note that the UAE is still an autocracy (albeit, arguably, one of the more enlightened ones). Mind you, one could levy similar charges against Singapore (where the ruling party has held power for decades; among other things, voting districts in Singapore are so small that it is easy for the bureaucracy to systematically penalise anyone who votes for the opposition).
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