Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Thu, 23 Mar 2017 04:23:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Corporatocracy: Al Franken shows Gorsuch Cold-Hearted toward Freezing Trucker Thu, 23 Mar 2017 04:23:43 +0000 Amy Goodman | Democracy Now! | (Video News Clip) | – –

Transcript via Democracy Now!

ALPHONSE MADDIN: In January of 2009, I was working as a commercial truck driver for TransAm Trucking Incorporated of Olathe, Kansas. I was hauling a load of meat through the state of Illinois. After stopping to resolve a discrepancy in the location to refuel, the brakes on the trailer froze. I contacted my employer, and they arranged for a repair unit to come to my location. I expected that help would arrive within an hour.

I awoke three hours later to discover that I could not feel my feet, my skin was burning and cracking, my speech was slurred, and I was having trouble breathing. The temperature that night was roughly 27 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. The heater in the cabin was not producing heat, and the temperature gauge in the truck was reading minus-7 degrees below zero. After informing my employer of my physical condition, they responded by telling me to simply hang in there.

As I sat there physically suffering in the cold, I started having thoughts that I was going to die. My physical condition was fading rapidly. I decided to try to detach the trailer from the truck and drive to safety. When I stepped out of the truck, I was concerned that I may fall, because I was on the verge of passing out. I feared that if I fell, I would not have the strength to stand up, and would die. I walked to the back of the trailer to place a lock on the cargo doors. The distance that I walked to the back of the trailer seemed like an eternity, as my feet absolutely had no feeling at all.

I eventually was able to detach the tractor from the trailer. Before I left, I called my employer to notify them that I had decided to head for shelter. And they ordered me to either drag the trailer or stay put. In my opinion, clearly, their cargo was more important than my life. My employer fired me for disobeying their orders. And I’d like to make it clear that although I detached the tractor from the trailer, I returned, and I completed my job. And I was still fired.

OK, I disputed my termination from TransAm Trucking and ultimately won. This was a seven-year battle. Seven different judges heard my case. One of those judges found against me. That judge was Neil Gorsuch.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Alphonse Maddin, the trucker, the driver, in the case involving Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. At Tuesday’s hearing, Senator Al Franken questioned Gorsuch about his dissent in the case.

SEN. AL FRANKEN: There were two safety issues here: one, the possibility of freezing to death, or driving with that rig in a very, very—a very dangerous way. Which would you have chosen? Which would you have done, Judge?

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH: Oh, Senator, I don’t know what I would have done if I were in his shoes, and I don’t blame him at all, for a moment, for doing what he did do.

SEN. AL FRANKEN: But—but—but—

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH: I empathize with him entirely.

SEN. AL FRANKEN: OK, just you’ve—we’ve been talking about this case. Don’t—you don’t—you haven’t decided what you would have done? You haven’t thought about, for a second, what you would have done in his case?

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH: Oh, Senator, I thought a lot about this case, because I—

SEN. AL FRANKEN: And what would you have done?

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH: I totally empathize and understand—

SEN. AL FRANKEN: I’m asking you a question. Please answer questions.

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH: Senator, I don’t know. I wasn’t in the man’s shoes. But I understand why he did—

SEN. AL FRANKEN: You don’t know what you would have done.


SEN. AL FRANKEN: OK, I’ll tell you what I would have done. I would have done exactly what he did.

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH: Yeah, I understand that.

SEN. AL FRANKEN: I think everybody here would have done exactly what he did. … It is absurd to say this company is in its rights to fire him because he made the choice of possibly dying from freezing to death or causing other people to die possibly by driving an unsafe vehicle. That’s absurd. Now, I had a career in identifying absurdity, and I know it when I see it. And it makes me—you know, it makes me question your judgment.”

The Video:

Democracy Now! “A Driver Fled His Truck to Avoid Freezing to Death. One Judge Ruled Against Him: Neil Gorsuch”

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Ex-Mossad Chief: Occupation of Palestinians Is Israel’s Only Existential Threat Thu, 23 Mar 2017 04:18:29 +0000 IMEMC | – –

Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo asserted, on Tuesday, that the Israeli occupation and the conflict with the Palestinians are the only existential threat facing Israel.

Pardo stated, according to Haaretz: “Israel has one existential threat. It is a ticking time bomb. We chose to stick our head in the sand, creating a variety of external threats. An almost identical number of Jews and Muslims reside between the sea and the Jordan. The non-Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria live under occupation. This is Israel’s definition, not mine. The law in this territory is as we have made it, a military justice system that is subject to the authority of the Israel Defense Forces.”

He said that, despite the full withdrawal from Gaza, responsibility for the territory remains in Israel’s hands. “Israel is responsible for the humanitarian situation, and this is the place with the biggest problem in t



Related video added by Juan Cole:

Jouneyman Pictures: ” High Hopes: Israeli Occupation in the West Bank”

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Failed Plan to Reconstruct Gaza Fuels Water, Sanitation Crisis Thu, 23 Mar 2017 04:14:55 +0000 TeleSur | – –

Under the plan, Israel continues to tightly control the materials that are being used to build vital infrastructure in Gaza.

The United Nations-backed strategy for the reconstruction of Gaza following the 2014 offensive by Israel has been dubbed a failure by the international charity Oxfam. An investigation released Wednesday revealed that the strategy “is failing to meet the needs of 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza” and instead is worsening Gaza’s already dire water and sanitation crisis.

The Oxfam report, titled “Treading Water” and released on World Water Day, analyzed the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism or GRM, which was designed to help with urgent reconstruction of areas devastated by the 2014 war by allowing the entry of building materials into the strip.

Under the GRM, almost 3,000 items needed to build infrastructure for water and sanitation in Gaza are still awaiting approval. Only 16 percent of items that have been submitted for GRM approval for water and sanitation projects have made it past the Israeli-imposed blockade.

As part of the GRM, Israeli authorities can reject or delay projects and specific items entering Gaza based on their claimed security concerns. Around 70 percent of materials needed to build water and sanitation infrastructure are estimated to be classed as “dual-use” items. Most of these essential “dual-use” items wait between 61 to 100 days before their approval is decided.

Oxfam Country Director Chris Eijkemans said that for Palestinians living in the territory under tight Israeli control, just 4 percent of freshwater is safe to drink amid a “staggering escalation of the water crisis.”

“The UN-brokered system is unaccountable, fundamentally flawed and gives the appearance of legitimizing Israel’s illegal blockade on Gaza,” Oxfam wrote in a press release. “The system is ultimately failing to meet immense needs, address Gaza’s de-development and enable construction of vital water infrastructure.”

The Oxfam report said that while Gaza has a system of piped domestic water, it is subject to breakage and leakage and is not fit for drinking. Instead, many rely on water for drinking and cooking that that is bought from water trucks. Some 40,000 people were estimated to lack access to municipal water networks and 95 percent of Palestinians in Gaza rely on desalinated sea water.

Overall, the GRM has failed to overcome the harsh restrictions of Israel’s blockade on the occupied Palestinian territories, undermining Palestinians’ human rights to water.

“What was an imperfect, supposedly temporary measure has become entrenched within the bureaucracy of the 10-year blockade, funded and backed by the international community and providing an appearance of legitimacy to Israel’s ongoing control over the Gaza Stip,” said Oxfam’s Eijkemans.

The investigation on the water crisis comes after the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia released a damning report on Israel’s “apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole.” The U.N. pulled the report amid Israeli outrage, while the Jordanian chief of the body, Rima Khalef, resigned in protest.

In 2012, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency warned that Gaza could become unliveable by 2020 if urgent action was not taken to keep pace with local needs and prevent “irreversible” damage to aquifers.

Via TeleSur


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Press TV: “Gaza marks World Water Day in polluted waters”

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Gorsuch Refuses Chance to Condemn ‘Dark Money’ Lobbying on His Behalf Wed, 22 Mar 2017 07:01:17 +0000 By Lauren McCauley, staff writer | ( | – –

Judge Neil Gorsuch claims he ‘speaks for’ himself, but secretive sources have spent millions to get him confirmed for a reason

During Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) questioned Judge Neil Gorsuch on the conservative “front groups” supporting his nomination. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Putting a rare spotlight on the shadowy conservatives pushing for confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) on Tuesday directly questioned the nominee on the dark money groups supporting his bid.

During the second day of questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Whitehouse called on Gorsuch to urge his undisclosed donors to reveal themselves “as a matter of respect for the process…so we can evaluate who is behind this effort.”

The Hill reported that, while “he did not name Judicial Crisis Network by name, Whitehouse asked why the group spent at least $7 million to keep President [Barack] Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, from getting a confirmation hearing and is now spending $10 million to get Gorsuch confirmed.”

“You’d have to ask them,” was Gorsuch’s retort, to which Whitehouse replied: “I can’t because I don’t know who they are. It is just a front group.”

According to the Los Angeles Times:

The exchange seemed to annoy the otherwise unflappable nominee.

When Republicans on the panel came to his defense and gave Gorsuch another opportunity to address the issue of what Whitehouse called “dark money” supporting his nomination, Gorsuch was resolute.

“Nobody speaks for me,” he said of the suggestion the group represented him. “Nobody. I speak for me. I am a judge. I don’t have spokesmen. I speak for myself.”

Watch the exchange below.

SCOTUS Nominee Neil Gorsuch Confronted About ‘Dark Money’ Spent To Deny Obama Pick | NBC News

The Judicial Crisis Network is among a tight-knit network of conservative organizations and activists that have been actively trying to reshape the American judiciary system, according to New York Times journalist Eric Lipton.

In a recent exposé, Lipton revealed the effort currently being led by conservative activist Leonard Leo, former executive vice president of the conservative Federalist Society, who was tapped by the White House to “shepherd the Gorsuch nomination.”

Lipton wrote:

This judicial reformation is being coordinated from Washington by a relatively small team closely aligned around Mr. Leo, who is on leave from the Federalist Society while he helps the White House shepherd the Gorsuch nomination. The network includes John G. Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation and Ann Corkery, a Washington lawyer who along with her husband, Neil, oversees the Judicial Crisis Network and related dark-money groups that also support the cause.

While a free-market agenda and the desire to place judges who will be more skeptical of federal and state regulations is a driving force, several central players in the group are also motivated by intense religious beliefs.

Appearing on Democracy Now! on Tuesday, Lipton further revealed that the Judicial Crisis Network—a so-called grassroots organization that has spent millions of dollars on pro-Gorsuch television and radio ads—only has two unknown donors listed on their tax records, which he tied back to Ann and Neil Corkery and their organization the Wellspring Committee.

According to, the Corkery’s have either been board members or officers with “the Catholic League, an aggressive defender of the church against what it sees as ‘slanderous assaults,'” and “the National Organization for Marriage, which has fiercely fought official recognition of gay marriage,” in addition to the Judicial Crisis Network.

Another shadowy group, the Koch Brothers’-backed Concerned Veterans for America, has also been a leading proponent of Gorsuch, flooding conservative districts where a Democrat faces re-election with calls, urging voters to contact their Senators and demand confirmation, according to the right-wing National Review.

Going a step further and connecting the conservative donors with Gorsuch’s controversial view in regards to the “Chevron deference,” Lipton explained how his confirmation could pave the way for massive deregulation.

In a 2016 court opinion, Gorsuch wrote that the idea that courts should defer to experts at agencies has “permit[ted] executive bureaucracies to swallow huge amounts of core judicial and legislative power and concentrate federal power in a way that seems more than a little difficult to square with the Constitution of the framers’ design. Maybe the time has come to face the behemoth.”

As Lipton told Democracy Now!:

[Y]ou look at Judicial Crisis Network. Who—in addition to spending millions of dollars on ads to get Gorsuch confirmed, what else is Judicial Crisis Network spending a lot of money on? It’s spending millions of dollars to get Republicans elected as state attorneys general. And the reason that is, is they want Republican attorneys general to bring cases in state and federal court that challenge federal regulations, which they think are overreaching, and then to get those cases into the court, in which they then help pick the judges and have more conservative judges, and then will have decisions which limit the federal powers.

And I think that, you know, that Gorsuch is—if you look at his record, it’s reasonable to expect that he will—he will believe in a more—a narrow interpretation of the law and that any time that a federal agency goes too far, that it’s appropriate for the courts to review it and decide if it has stepped beyond its bounds.

Watch the segment below:

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Iraq: ISIS Dumped Hundreds in Mass Grave Wed, 22 Mar 2017 06:51:41 +0000 Via Human Rights Watch | – –

Security Forces, Prisoners, Women, Among Those Executed

(Erbil) – The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) executed and dumped the bodies of possibly hundreds of detainees at a site near Mosul, Human Rights Watch said today.

Multiple witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the bodies of those killed, including bodies of members of Iraqi security forces, were thrown into a naturally occurring sinkhole at a site known as Khafsa, about eight kilometers south of western Mosul. Local residents said that before pulling out of the area in mid-February, ISIS laid improvised landmines at the site, which are sometimes referred to as improvised explosive devices or booby traps.

Iraq: ISIS Dumped Hundreds in Mass Grave

“This mass grave is a grotesque symbol of ISIS’s cruel and depraved conduct – a crime of a monumental scale,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Laying landmines in the mass grave is clearly an attempt by ISIS to maximize harm to Iraqis.”

Iraqi authorities should make it a priority to mark and fence the site for the protection of the mass grave and those in the area, until deminers can clear the site, Human Rights Watch said. Residents said that water runs through the bottom of the sinkhole, which may make it difficult to exhume the human remains there. If exhumation is possible, the process should be carried out under international standards. Authorities should turn the site into a memorial and support families of victims seeking justice for the executions.

The site is one of dozens of ISIS mass graves found between Iraq and Syria, but could be the largest discovered thus far, Human Rights Watch said. While it is not possible to determine the number of people executed at the site, the estimates of residents, based on executions they witnessed and what ISIS fighters in the area had told them, reaches into the thousands.

Iraqi forces seized control of the site in mid-February 2017. Human Rights Watch visited the site on March 7, but did not inspect the sinkhole closely due to the landmines. An improvised explosive device left at the sinkhole killed a journalist and at least three Iraqi security forces on February 25.

Residents said they had seen multiple mass executions at the 35-meter-wide sinkhole, sometimes on a weekly basis starting in June 2014 until May or June 2015. They said they heard ISIS fighters talking about other executions, including of former police, former Iraqi Security Force members, and members of the Awakening Force (Sahwa), the Sunni force that fought extremist fighters from 2007 to 2008.

Some of the victims may also have been detainees at Badoush Prison, 10 kilometers west of Mosul, which ISIS captured on June 10, 2014. On that day, ISIS fighters executed about 600 prisoners at a ravine in the nearby desert, nine survivors told Human Rights Watch.

On March 11, 2017, the Iraqi Security Forces announced that they had found another mass grave, about two kilometers from Badoush prison, that held between 500 and 600 men – though it is unclear how they determined these numbers. On March 13, Human Rights Watch spoke to an Iraqi military commander who had visited the site four days earlier and had witnessed Iraqi forces exhuming bodies there. On March 15, a general in the Iraqi military’s 9th division told Human Rights Watch that under the division’s supervision, medical experts from Baghdad had exhumed about 400 bodies from the site.

‘Hammam al-Alil mass grave marked and fenced’ Caption: A marked and fenced ISIS mass grave in Hammam al-Alil, 30 kilometers south of Mosul, discovered in November 2016.

Fawaz Abdulameer of the International Committee for Missing Persons, an international organization working to establish effective procedures for protecting mass graves and conducting exhumations, told Human Rights Watch: “These excavations are unacceptable. They must be carried out by trained teams with sufficient experience, because they are dealing with human remains at a crime scene.”

This is the second report of ad hoc and unprofessional exhumations taking place without authorization.

Widespread or systematic murder carried out by a state or organized group as part of an attack against a civilian population – as part of a policy to commit murder – constitutes a crime against humanity. The deliberate killing of civilians and civilian or military prisoners during an armed conflict constitutes a war crime.

To facilitate accountability for these crimes, Iraq should ratify the Rome Statute, giving the International Criminal Court jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity there, and should incorporate the prosecution of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide into its domestic law.

All parties to the conflict in Iraq should respect the 1997 Ottawa (Mine Ban) Treaty, which Iraq has ratified.

“The strong desire to exhume the remains of loved ones from ISIS mass graves is perfectly understandable, but hastily conducted exhumations seriously harm the chances of identifying the victims and preserving evidence,” Fakih said. “While exhuming the remains of those killed at Khafsa may be difficult, authorities should do what they can to make sure that those who lost their loved ones there have access to justice.”

The Killings at Khafsa

Five residents from villages near Khafsa told Human Rights Watch that on June 10, 2014, they saw ISIS fighters bring four large trucks filled with blindfolded men, with their hands bound, to the sinkhole. Two residents of al-Athba, a village three kilometers from Khafsa, two residents of Swada, a neighboring village, and a resident of Irbid, three kilometers away, who were able to see the site, described what they saw.

The witnesses said the fighters unloaded the men, lined most of them up on the edge of the sinkhole, and opened fire so that the bodies fell in. Fighters shot a smaller number of people a short distance away and threw their bodies into the hole, the witnesses said. One of the men from al-Athba and the man from Irbid said ISIS fighters later told them that the men they had executed were prisoners from Badoush.

The killings at the Khafsa sinkhole apparently continued regularly from late 2014 to mid-2015. One of the residents from Swada, a shepherd, said that in September 2014, he was near Khafsa and saw male ISIS fighters arrive in a pickup truck with at least 13 women, all with full face coverings and cloaks and blindfolds, with their hands bound. He said the ISIS fighters shot the women on the precipice of the pit. He said he witnessed three more group executions subsequently, including the execution of three of his relatives.

One of al-Athba residents, also a shepherd, said he witnessed one execution at the end of 2014, after ISIS fighters called on the residents of al-Athba to come to the sinkhole over the mosque loudspeaker. Fighters brought three of his friends and his cousin to the site because they were accused of having shared GPS coordinates of ISIS positions with the Iraqi forces, he said. The fighters beheaded the men on a wooden block in front of the town residents, and then threw the bodies into the pit. He said fighters told him they had killed another of his cousins, an army officer, and dumped him in the pit.

The shepherd from al-Athba said that at another time, at the end of 2014, he was with his sheep in the area and saw ISIS fighters arrive in two cars and drag out a very large, strong man. They walked him up onto the precipice of the sinkhole, and as they were about to shoot him, he grabbed one of the fighters and jumped into the hole, holding him. Two witnesses of multiple executions said that fighters started carrying out executions further from the precipice after that because of the fighter they had lost.

Another shepherd from al-Athba said that in February 2015 he was about 30 meters from Khafsa with his sheep when he saw six ISIS fighters arrive in a large bus and march at least 20 men to flat ground near the sinkhole. They lined the men up and shot them, then threw their bodies in, he said. In March 2015, the man said, he was again in the area with his sheep and saw two fighters pull up in a car, take four prisoners out, and shoot them near the pit, then throw their bodies into the sinkhole.

Human Rights Watch interviewed a family from Kudila, 60 kilometers southeast of Khafsa, who had fled their home in March 2016. The husband, a former Iraqi soldier, said that ISIS had imprisoned him for 18 days in Qayyarah in March 2015 for selling cigarettes. He said that fighters took several prisoners from the facility while he was there, and he overheard guards saying they were taking them to Khafsa for execution. The prisoners did not return.

Another man from Sawda said that in early 2015, he saw fighters driving 11 freezer trucks toward the sinkhole, and heard from local ISIS fighters that as many as 1,000 people transported to the site in those trucks had been executed that day.

The five people living near Khafsa said they had heard estimates of between 3,000 and 25,000 people executed at the site. They said they often heard screams and gunfire. By early 2015, the stench from the bodies had become unbearable and families were telling ISIS fighters that they would need to move to Mosul if it persisted. One of al-Athba residents said: “It was summer so we had to sleep on the roof, but we were not able to sleep because the stench of the dead was so strong. The smell was overwhelming.” Another said, “The smell was disgusting, we were inside our houses but the smell still reached us.”

In response to the complaints, fighters brought several cranes and dumped the contents of several large trailers into the hole then filled the rest of the pit with earth using several excavators, according to two of the residents Human Rights Watch interviewed. One said, “They [ISIS] told us the trailers were also full of bodies.” ISIS did not carry out any more executions at the site after it was filled in, all the locals said. They said the smell of decomposing bodies diminished after that.

Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch shows that the sinkhole was filled in sometime between March and June 2015.

By the time Iraqi government forces retook the area around the sinkhole in February 2017, the filled-in earth had started to subside. Images taken then by international journalists show the remains of what look like two cars in the middle of the filled-in pit.

The location was already labeled on the open-source online map, Wikimapia, as an ISIS mass grave in April 2014 by an unnamed user, before the area had fallen to ISIS-control, but when there was already a strong ISIS presence in the area. The two shepherds from al-Athba and a federal police officer said that as early as 2004, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor group to ISIS, had used the sinkhole to dump bodies of people they executed for allegedly collaborating with the Americans or the Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Governments.

Via Human Rights Watch

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Isolated Saudi Arabia pivots to Asia; but will it spread Extremism There? Wed, 22 Mar 2017 06:43:06 +0000 By Babak Mohammadzadeh | (Informed Comment) | – –

Capital cities across Asia spent the last month rolling out the red carpet for a rarely seen visitor: Saudi Arabia’s ageing King Salman, accompanied by a hundreds-strong diplomatic entourage including senior princes, businessmen and ministers. Taking in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Japan, China and the Maldives, the king spent March leading a concerted effort to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s commercial links with Asia’s fast-growing economies. The Conversation

The House of Saud doesn’t usually go in for long state visits, and no Saudi king has visited Indonesia for half a century. So the fact that the Saudi king committed to a full month away in this part of the world speaks volumes about his government’s mood after a series of strategic miscalculations.

Saudi rulers have always worried about the prospect of diplomatic isolation, and stronger relations with Asia are in some ways part of the usual agenda. But they’ve now become a lifeline with which to save the kingdom from its bad bets in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s recent efforts to settle its incessant rivalry with Iran have not paid off, and after flooding the market with cheap oil and engineering a fall in the oil price to Iran’s detriment, the Saudis are now themselves faced with a festering budget deficit, forcing them to slash spending on infrastructure and reduce civil servant perks to get finances under control.

Elsewhere, the devastating war in Yemen is exposing Saudi Arabia to both military pressure and severe international condemnation for the humanitarian catastrophe the campaign has caused. Recent decisions taken in Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), meanwhile, forced Saudi Arabia to swallow a big hit on its oil production, suggesting that it can no longer afford an aggressive anti-Iran policy in Yemen without new allies and partners to shore it up.

In these squeezed times, South-East Asia’s growing economies have much to offer to the Saudis.

Finance diplomacy

Historically, the pilgrimage from Asia to Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina has been an important revenue source for the kingdom’s volatile budget, but King Salman’s failing regional fortunes and financial problems have placed renewed impetus on moving the kingdom away from its traditional dependence on oil.

King Salman has found a receptive audience in the Asian capitals. Malaysia is already making a strong turn to the Saudi fold; in early 2016, it joined military exercises in northern Saudi territory involving around 150,000 soldiers, 2,540 warplanes, 20,000 tanks, and 460 helicopters. The exercise has been fuelling rumours that Malaysia might be swayed to join Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen, which already benefits from the support of several other Muslim-majority states.

This is not a strange expectation. Personal relations between Prime Minister Najib Razak and the Saudi royal family are reported to be strong, and the Saudis played a key role in helping to save Razak’s political career from a major scandal. By publicly confirming Razak’s claim that an unaccounted US$681m in his bank accounts was a donation from the Saudi royal family, the Saudis helped to counter accusations that he had in fact siphoned the money from heavily indebted state investment fund 1MDB.

Economic opportunities abound. Upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur in late February, national oil and gas company Saudi Aramco signed a US$7 billion agreement with Malaysian oil company Petronas. The deal will pump Saudi investment into a Malaysian petrochemical project valued at US$27 billion, making Aramco the single largest investor in Malaysia. The deal is also expected to improve Malaysia’s chances to compete in oil refining and energy storage, an industry currently monopolised by Singapore in South-East Asia.

Indonesia, too, hopes to attract billions of dollars in Saudi investment. The two countries have signed more than ten memorandums of understanding, building on cultural and religious projects, promoting educational exchange and intensifying trade. Together with Indonesia’s Pertamina, Saudi Aramco has committed to expand Indonesia’s biggest refinery in Java. The total value of the agreements stretches into the billions.

The Saudis are highly skilled in this sort of fast-paced “finance diplomacy”. Like estranged family members coming home with presents, they bring in their wake large sums of money for development finance and the promise of several billions of dollars of investment opportunities for the relations they hope to cultivate.

And beyond pure financial interests, it’s worth remembering that these joint investment ventures create the sort of long-term partnerships that give external partners a stake in Saudi Arabia’s own security and development. These sorts of financial patronage projects extend far beyond trade and commerce – since the 1970s, Saudi oil money has persistently found its way to foreign schools, charities, mosques and nonprofits to promote a religious ideology which is at odds with the traditional brand of moderate Islam practised in South-East Asia. Donations by dozens of Saudi waqfs (Islamic charitable endowments) all fuel the elite’s drive to project itself as the leader of Sunni Muslims the world over.

Investment with the heft the Saudis offer is too tempting to pass up, but King Salman’s visit will only help export his country’s hardline doctrine to places where that could do without it. Both Malaysia and Indonesia urgently need to ease tensions between restive religious communities, but Saudi Arabia aims to open more Islamic schools across South-East Asia, increasing not only literacy in the Arabic language but also Saudi religious teaching and influence. That could be a heavy price tag indeed.

Babak Mohammadzadeh, PhD Candidate in Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Saudi King Salman Arrived in Indonesia (US$25 billion worth of investment)

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Top 4 Worst pieces of Climate News from WMO in Age of Trump Wed, 22 Mar 2017 06:30:16 +0000 By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The World Meteorological Organization of the United Nations issued its annual report on the climate on Tuesday, making a full and final assessment of 2016.

It was not good news.

It was big news, but it wasn’t good news. Also, surprise, it wasn’t reported on most television “news,” otherwise known as babysitting for adults.


“Warming continued in 2016, setting a new temperature record of approximately 1.1 °C above the pre-industrial period, and 0.06 °C above the previous highest value set in 2015.

Last year was the warmest year on record in North America. What was strange about the unusual warmth of 2016 was, moreover, how widespread it was over the globe. And it hit the oceans, as well. In fact, the heat in the seas actually literally killed fish around Fiji! And it killed off a lot of coral.

The average global temperature is about 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher than it was in 1750 before the industrial revolution and modern agriculture spewed so many billions of metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere! CO2 is a greenhouse gas that interferes with the earth’s ability to radiate back out to space the heat it receives from the sun, trapping it. The more heat that is trapped, the hotter the earth will get over time on average.

2 degrees F. is more than it sounds, because it is a global average, including the very cold oceans and the arctic and Antarctica. In some places, the increase has been more.

Even worse, the rate of increase is speeding up. That’s alarming, that 2016 was 0.06° C. hotter than just the year before!

Scientists are concerned that if we get much beyond a 2° C./ 3.6° F. increase, the climate could start to become dangerously unstable. It could result in much less rainfall in some places and megastorms in others. Not to mention that some gigantic glaciers will plop into the ocean that all by themselves could raise sea-levels rapidly and significantly. But at the rate we’re going, the likelihood of us halting the increase at 3.6° F. is ridiculously low. On the other hand, the lower we can keep the increase, the better off we and our descendants will be.

We’d like to avoid a 4 C. / 7 F. world at all costs. But the average increase could go on up to 12° F. if Rex Tillerson gets his way and we burn up all the fossil fuels. That would be inconvenient in the extreme for a lot of people on earth.

All this is because:


“Carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) reached new highs at 400.0 ± 0.1 ppm in the atmosphere at the end of 2015.”

I know most people don’t read print newspapers anymore, but in the old days we would say that this should have been a massive headline above the fold. What would you say now? It should have dominated people’s social media feeds? It is more important than Russian fake news and cute kitten videos?

We have surpassed 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere! In 1750 it was like 280 ppm. That’s why the temperature has gone up 2 degrees F. since then! Lots more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. There is no known way to get the CO2 back out of the atmosphere artificially! A lot of it will go into the ocean, which is a carbon sink, but that will vastly increase the acidity of the ocean and kill off half of marine life. 10% of the 7.4 billion human beings mainly live on marine life. The rest will get washed out of the atmosphere by binding with igneous rock. That will take at least 100,000 years. It’s going to be hyper-tropical for a long time. Maybe we can splice into ourselves some genes from tropical fauna to make it more bearable. That won’t help with the megastorms, though. And we can’t really do that gene splicing thing anyway, at least so far.


“Global sea-ice extent dropped more than 4 million square kilometers below average – an unprecedented anomaly – in November.”

Ice shelves in the ocean already don’t contribute to sea level rise when they melt, but if it is melting so is the surface ice. And you really don’t want surface ice melting if you live anywhere near a seashore.

Another site explains,

“In November 2016, Arctic sea ice extent averaged 9.08 million square kilometers (3.51 million square miles), the lowest November in the satellite record. This is 800,000 square kilometers (309,000 square miles) below November 2006, the previous lowest November…”

And just in case you’re wondering, yes, this is something we are doing with our gasoline, natural gas and coal emissions.. It may be exacerbated by weather cycles, but we’re causing the maximum weirdness of it.


“Global sea levels rose strongly during the 2015/2016 El Niño, with the early 2016 values making new records.”

The report notes, “Globally, sea level has risen by 20 cm [about 8 inches] since the start of the twentieth century, due mostly to thermal expansion of the oceans and melting of glaciers and ice caps.”

But when we come to just last year the WMO says, “Global sea levels rose strongly during the 2015/2016 El Niño, rising about 15 mm [over half an inch] between November 2014 and February 2016, well above the post-1993 trend of 3 mm – 3.5 mm per year, with the early 2016 values reaching new record highs.”

Since 1900, the oceans have gone up about 2/3s of a foot, but in just last year they rose half an inch!

There are other things in the report, such as the natural disasters that have a component of human-caused climate change, including typhoons and hurricanes and droughts. You figure at least 20% of any of these is likely driven by the greenhouse gases we’ve all been belching into the atmosphere.

So there we have it, folks. We live in a country where the head of the EPA can lie about what is going on and why it is going on without fear of accountability.

The onus is now on us as individual Americans to do the right thing by the earth and reduce our carbon footprint. Here’s some ways we can resist Pruitt’s anti-EPA and help save the planet.


Related video:

Antarctica’s Record-Breaking Heat Studied By WMO | Video

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What’s Cuba *Really* Like? Tue, 21 Mar 2017 04:24:34 +0000 H. Patricia Hynes | (Informed Comment) | – –

What is Cuba like? Since visiting there recently, I have been asked this question hundreds of times and learned that every third person harbors a desire to visit there.

Yes, there are iconic ‘57 Chevrolets, some in mint condition for taking tourists around Havana. But most 1950s Russian and American cars there would not pass emissions and safety inspections here (although this may change as the Trump administration takes a wrecking ball to the US EPA). There are no traffic jams in this city of 2.2 million people because most Cubans take buses, ride bikes, use pedicabs and walk. Music – especially Afro Cuban and salsa – is everywhere: in hotels, small clubs, plazas, flowing from opened windows. So no need to go in search of it; it finds you.

Cubans love books, we were told. Sure enough, there were many bookstores in Havana. Could their love of books stem from a public education system that is free through university and medical school, the most democratic educational system in the Americas? Within two years after the 1959 revolution, Cuba’s aggressive literacy program, which placed special focus on women, Afro-Cubans and rural people, raised the literacy rate from 60 percent to 96 percent. It now stands at 100 percent. (By contrast, 32 million adults in the U.S. are considered illiterate, reflecting the fact that our country invests much less of our GDP in education than does Cuba). Every morning, just after 7:00 the streets are filled with children in school uniforms walking, being biked and, in the case of the small rural towns like Boca de Camarioca where we stayed, being brought in horse-drawn carriages to their schools.

In Havana we met with two key women’s organizations, the Federation of Cuban Women and the National Union of Cuban Women Lawyers. They described their programs on violence against women in the primary and secondary schools and have a profound understanding of prostitution and the sexual exploitation of women. Their feminist magazines – one for girls and one for women – reach hundreds of thousands of readers.

Cuba is a poor country, with the average monthly salary of teachers being $40, and no evident signs of consumerism – no shopping malls, luxury goods, cheap fast food places or billboard advertising. Despite its poverty, it has the lowest malnutrition rate in the Americas. Nowhere did I see homeless people sleeping in parks, doorways or under bridges nor people begging as I saw daily during the years that I worked in Boston. Boston, with a quarter of Havana’s population, had nearly 8,000 homeless men, women and children in 2016, with a 25 percent increase in homeless families since 2015.

The U.S. embargo of Cuba, more accurately called a bloqueo or blockade by Cubans, began in 1960 with the intent to deny money and supplies to the country; to decrease wages; and “to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the [Castro] government,” according to a State Department memo. And, yes, there is a sense of the country locked in the 1950s, with housing and colonial buildings desperately in need of repair, extremely crowded buses, shortages of consumer goods, and poor air quality in Havana. Years of material deprivation, amazingly, have not dampened the warmth, affection and welcome that everyone who visits Cuba speaks of, a richness in the Cuban spirit sustained, possibly, by their more equal society.

In the past few years, the Cuban government under Raul Castro has allowed small private enterprises to open. Families are renting rooms and offering meals to tourists, in what are called casas particulares. These and other small microenterprises are flourishing and raising incomes and standards of living across the island.

One hallmark of Cuba’s achievements is its free health care system, recognized as one of the best in the world, as well as the primary care it provides in poor communities throughout the world. In meeting with health care providers, we learned of their emphasis on disease prevention and the country’s policy that every community, no matter how remote, has a primary care facility. With its commitment to health care as a human right, Cuba has achieved higher life expectancy and a lower infant mortality rate than the United States, these being key indicators of the overall health of the country’s people.

Like many colonial-era countries, Cuba’s wealth was built on the African slave trade and slave labor. One factor that may contribute to their overall health achievements is that the social and economic integration of black and white Cubans – an intentional goal since their revolution – is more advanced than that of many countries, including (and especially) our own. In 2015 black and Hispanic households in the United States had on average one-tenth the money and property of white households.

Last year President Obama made a trip to Cuba, after much closed door negotiation facilitated at times by the Vatican and consultation with wealthy Miami Cuban-American businessmen. Some of them joined him in Havana, being flown there on the private jet of a Cuban American healthcare billionaire.

Obama’s intentions appear honorable – opening up Cuba’s economy with private enterprise to raise the standard of living, release of political prisoners and free elections. Yet there is a fatal irony in these objectives for Cuba. Our “free” national elections are determined by money – the biggest spenders win; and our Executive Branch is now littered with people in the top 1 percent of income. We have the largest prison system in the world, with a disproportionate number of African Americans unjustly incarcerated, and have never yet, as a society, come to terms with structural racism, our segregated cities and segregated urban schools. Even with the Affordable Care Act, medical expenses are the biggest cause of bankruptcies while executives in the health care industry become multi-millionaires.

Realistically, most U.S. people would not choose to live in Cuba: we have more individual freedoms and no shortages of consumer items, if you can afford them. I do remember, however, a sign scrawled on a wall in the city of Matanzas (the former center of the African slave trade) that speaks to the island country’s social aspirations: la dignidad no se vende, dignity is not for sale.

Pat Hynes, a retired professor of environmental health from Boston University School of Public Health, directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

BBC News: “What is life like in Cuba after Fidel Castro? BBC News”

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