RAMADAN TELEVISION TALES
Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, April 29
Ramadan is a month of goodness, when millions of Muslim families around the world gather together in their home to break the daily fast. It is also a month of television, as millions of viewers gather around the TV, from the iftar to the suhoor meals, to watch hit shows and movies. In the process, they consume hours of ads, commercials and subtle political messages.
Every Ramadan television season has its unique “trend.” In past years, the prominent theme was terrorism. In others, it was issues related to women’s rights. This year’s trend seems to be particularly polemical, with repeated talk about Israel, the Jewish people and the prospects of coexistence. But the truth is that there’s a lot of openness to these topics.
What we’re witnessing is a generational shift wherein Arab youth, both Palestinian and non, are starting to adopt a political rhetoric different than that of their parents’ generation. They are much more amenable to discussing relations with Israel in an open manner.
Whether de jure political relations are eventually established with Israel or not, de facto steps on the ground suggest that the process of normalization has already begun. For example, sporting events held in the Arab world now openly feature Israeli teams. We shouldn't underestimate these changes because they may very well be an indication of social change that will eventually lead to political change.
Just as Ramadan television had a monumental role in popularizing the fight against terrorism and extremism, it can also popularize certain attitudes toward Israel. It is worth remembering that this doesn’t necessarily mean that television producers are trying to indoctrinate viewers. People are free to maintain their own world-views. For example, while the Saudi television show Umm Haroun explores the historic ties between Jews and Arabs living in the Middle East in a positive light, the Egyptian show The End depicts a fantasy of obliterating Israel. The ultimate judges are the viewers. They, and only they, decide whether they want to watch the show. –Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed
QATAR AND THE NEWCASTLE DEAL
Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 29
Last week, Qatar demanded that the English Premier League block the Saudi takeover of the Newcastle United football club, citing Riyadh’s alleged involvement in “television privacy.” Sadly, it seems as if neither the sheikh of Qatar nor his father, the head of the snake, have learned anything from the boycott imposed on their country. What’s particularly interesting is that investments in sports clubs have become extremely popular in recent decades, especially by sovereign wealth funds in Gulf countries.
Why, then, is Qatar objecting the Saudi-British deal? The reason is, of course, to undermine the kingdom’s political interests. Doha is hoping to lift the siege Riyadh imposed upon it by spoiling the latter’s deal in the UK. The Saudi siege, which has entered its third year, has cost Qatar significant economic, political and social losses. The Qatari people feel a sense of anger toward their government because of this prolonged boycott, which continues to worsen. They’ve lost any glimmer of hope, especially after talks between the two states collapsed.
Instead of pressuring their government to cease its aggressive policies, the people of Qatar are still arrogant and drunk with power. Qatar is nothing more than a wealthy state deriving its strength from the incubation and financing of terrorism. It refuses to understand that it’s nothing more than a minuscule state that can only be seen on the world map with a microscope, and whose strength lies only in its ability to bring harm and to spread conspiracy theories about other countries.
Qatar will not get out of this predicament until it comes to terms with the limits of its power and recognizes that no matter how much money it spends to undermine its neighbors, it will forever be surrounded from all sides by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As for the Qatari attempt to sabotage the investment deal in Newcastle, it was, in every sense of the words, a stupid, naive and despicable attempt.
Hopefully, this desperate and miserable Qatari effort serves as a wake-up call to nations around the world that this small political entity is a harmful country that has not learned its lesson despite the fatal isolation under which it lives. –Muhammad Al-Sheikh
THE DEATH OF THE MAN WHO WANTED TO BE ‘LAWRENCE OF KOREA’
Al-Ayam, Bahrain, April 28
A few weeks ago, Michael Hay, the man who loved North Korea and founded the first and only international law firm in Pyongyang, passed away. He was 58 years old. Hay, who had a Scottish father and a French mother, was known for his sense of adventurism, his fascination with North Korea, and his brilliance in the field of law. He got his master’s degree from the University of Chicago Law School and then a doctorate in law from the University of Edinburgh, and later proceeded to hold distinguished positions in the New York City bar.
In the early 1990s, Hay left the United States and moved to South Korea, where he opened an arbitration office. He quickly became known as a shrewd, compassionate and intelligent lawyer, and was voted one of the most prominent lawyers in Asia in 1999, 2000 and 2001. The move to Seoul paved the way for what would soon turn into Hay’s life-calling: a deep fascination with, and affection for, North Korea and its political establishment, people, culture and traditions. This happened during the period when Seoul was preparing to launch the "Rising Sun” policy that sought to promote reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula and the normalization of ties with Pyongyang.
Back then, in 1998, Hay made his first visit to North Korea. Close friends and acquaintances claimed that Hay imagined himself as a hero sent by Divine providence to play a historical role on the peninsula, similar to the role others played in colonial times, such as T.E. Lawrence in Arabia and James Brooke in Malaysia. Quickly enough, Hay succeeded in establishing himself in the closed-off country by making numerous friendships with government officials and obtaining a repertoire of information that helped him pave his path up. In the wake of the 2000 summit between South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-Il, Hay was granted an exceptional license to establish the first foreign legal advisory office in Pyongyang under the name Hay, Kalb & Associates.
The move surprised many skeptical observers around the world, who refused to believe that law is actually practiced in North Korea. Hay, however, repeatedly described his North Korean colleagues and lawyer friends as wonderful and professional individuals. He continuously expressed his admiration for the beauty of the country and its inhabitants. However, it is now known that authorities in Pyongyang prohibited Hay from representing citizens before their courts, leaving him with a small clientele of European and Southeast Asian businessmen operating in North Korea. He also represented a handful of embassies and foreign organizations operating in Pyongyang.
With the 2008 change in government in Seoul, the closing of the joint border industrial zone and Pyongyang’s expansion of its ballistic missile program, relations between North and South Korea quickly took a downturn. The United States imposed personal sanctions on North Korean individuals and businesses, including Hay’s practice. In late 2016, he relocated to France in an attempt to salvage and rearrange his business. Those who met him after his return to Seoul in 2018 were in unanimous agreement that Hay seemed defeated, had lost confidence in himself, and seemed to suffer from panic and fear.
Hay continued to reside in South Korea but struggled to adapt to his new life after being barred from traveling and working in the estranged country he loved so much. This frustration grew deeper with the failure of the American-North Korean talks led by President Trump. Hay dreamed of returning to Pyongyang but died in Seoul at the age of 58. Unmarried and with no children, he is survived by six siblings. –Abdallah Al-Madani
AL-KAZEMI, IRAN, AND THE FUTURE OF IRAQ
Al-Rai, Kuwait, April 27
It is no longer a secret that Mustafa al-Kazemi, the appointed Iraqi prime minister, is facing difficulty in forming a government. There are parties that want to ignore the fact that the fragile Iraqi political system is on the brink of collapse. They refuse to take note of the fact that years of systematic looting at the hands of both Iraqi autocrats and foreign occupiers have dried up the land of its resources.
There is no need to reiterate how important Iraq is in shaping the future of the region due to both the wealth it possesses and its strategic location. The 2003 American invasion of Iraq, alongside the slow Iranian takeover of the country since the withdrawal of US forces, are two cases in point demonstrating how the situation in Iraq can destabilize the entire regional and international system. The difficulty in establishing a new Iraqi political structure, with solid institutions, is a real concern. Kazemi must deal not only with internal Iraqi politics, but also with Iran, which has invested extensively in Iraq in the past few years in an attempt to wield power over the government in Baghdad.
All parties involved in the negotiations, especially the Shi’ites, will have to make a qualitative shift and think about the future of their country and whether it is possible to separate its interests from those of the regime in Iran. According to administration officials in Washington, the White House is considering negotiating with the Iraqi government a final agreement pertaining to the future of the American presence in the country. The US administration wants to understand what the future of the Iraqi army holds: Will it remain a real military force similar to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran, or will it become a redundant force with allegiances to certain power groups?
Kazemi seems to believe that Iraq can move past its sectarian divisions. This begs the question of whether he is a dreamer or a realist. Eventually, the future of the Iranian regime is tied to that of Iraq. From this standpoint, it will be difficult to find any margin between the Iraqi government and Tehran even though Iraq no longer has anything tangible to offer the mullah regime. Iraq is a bankrupt country in which nothing can be looted. This is true more than ever before, with the plunge in global oil prices.
In the event that Kazemi succeeds in forming a government (an accomplishment whose likelihood diminishes with each passing day), Iraq will get only one last chance. The new government will get one last opportunity to shape Iraq’s fate in a region that is dramatically changing.There is no doubt that America will be able to invest again in Iraq. But the nature of its investment and its new relationship with Baghdad will depend on two factors.
The first is the future of the Iranian regime, which is unlikely to withstand the collapse in oil prices and the US sanctions. The other factor is Iraq itself, and its ability to distinguish itself as a sovereign country that is not beholden to Iran. Kazemi’s ability to form a government remains crucial for Iraq, but every passing day reveals an unwavering Iranian determination to maintain its expansionist project in Iraq as a card against America.However, the Iranian regime fails to understand that Iraq is no longer a winning card. Indeed, it has become more of a burden than anything else. The history of Iraq in the past 17 years, since the 2003 US invasion, has been a series of frustrations and heartbreaks for the Iraqi people. Can Kazemi finally bring about the change his people want and need? –Kheir Allah Kheir Allah
Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.