Will the Egyptian sphinx smile or Cry?

The Egyptian street protests are now in their 7th day and there seems to be no logical end to it. With a protest of this magnitude, fuelled by pent up frustration, media coverage and unprecented coordination of people across cities, you would expected either a total suppression by the regime or a victory for the people. Instead, you see Mubarak ordering the Police to take charge of the situation without firing live ammunition.( some media reports have indicated that live rounds were indeed used). The police fail to take the streets back and then the army is deployed on the same rules. Witness here the spectacle of soldiers chatting with people almost as if they were on a day’s picnic. Why, one would ask, is there no move on the part of any of the belligerents to end this? As always, the answer has to be found in within a web, we call, foreign affairs. Big Brother USA has a vested interest in maintaining a status quo in Egypt, partly for strategic reasons (The Suez falling into wrong hands???) as well as in ensuring Israel’s military balance in the region remains unchallenged. Another could be a need to prop up monarchies/autocracies across a region which produces some much of world oil and in turn control them by manipulating regional rivalries. Egypt could be the breath that brings down the whole house of cards.The US has not publicly denounced Mubarak nor has it supported it. Sending a former ambassador, Frank G Wisner, as a private citizen is also a non- committal stance. Mubarak has tried to play his own set of moves, reshuffling a cabinet, creating a line of sucession outside the family, and raising the spectre of anarchy if he were to fall. All of which leads us to the third part of the web. The Egytian Army has been the backbone on which a post- King Farouk era was forged. It has been well regarded by the common man as a defender of its sovereignity.(How much of that is true or a myth depends on your interpretation of the Yom Kippur War). the army is also the fountain of power from which the pharoahs, ancient and contemporary derive their legitimacy to rule, unlike the monarchies which obtain the right to rule from divine grace. The army by its actions wants to present a Iron fist clad in a velvet glove as they walk a line between the people and Mubarak. Some reports have even gone to suggest that Mubarak is now being told what to do by the army. But why does the Army want to retain power?  An entity that recieves over 1% of the country’s GDP as foreign aid from the US would not want to rock the boat, even if it needs to sacrifice some old pharaohs. Nor does it want to be subject to a greater power than its own after almost 50years of indirect rule.What do the protesters want? Nothing more than Mubarak quitting. No future plans are being discussed. The opposition groups are in opposition to each other and cannot unite. All one hears is the cacophony of ‘Go Mubarak!!!. Perhaps, the Army might graciously ask Mubarak to leave and with an estimated 20billion in , the Sphinx might attempt a wry smile as he savours life in the midst of plenty. For the people with their immediate need met, they might look forward to another sphinx ruling for 30 more years.

The economic implications of a Royal Wedding

Channel 4 reports that the either the government or Her majesty would foot the bill of Prince William’s wedding in either in 2011. Opinions are divided on the cost of the wedding. The guardian reports that the 1981 wedding including security could have cost around £30m which could be upto £100m in today’s terms.  If the Queen is denied any increase in the civil list, her personal fortune would be hit. How much of that wealth is there, is itself ambigious, as the Queen holds much of this wealth in trust for the nation. The Times Rich estimates her fortune is £290m and a £100m deficit might be too much to stomach for Her Majesty? The government will have a lot of wrangling to do before parliament appproves this additional expenditure in times of uncertainity.Will this provide value for who ever foots the bill? I think it will.Ofcourse  as this is my off the cuff assessment, it may be slightly off,the exact estimates. Prince william is still by far the most popular Royal with a credible public persona and his wedding will be a media frenzy that could draw the tourists to the UK. Government Statistics indicate that the UK earned over £4.3Bn last year. A mere 2.33% hike in tourist arrivals would pay for the wedding. What about the other parts of the economy? Souvenirs and other copies of royalMemorabilia would produce an economic boost -but only if it was manufactured in the UK and not in china or other lower production states! What about the value of its morale boost to  a populace battered down by cuts and cuts? Remember the Churchill era and the value of good PR in times of crises. The wedding might do that now and spur all of us to create more value than we spend on it.

The Obama Encirclement of China

Has anyone seen any geopolitical connections with the US presidents visit and China-US relations?.Obama starts with India,and moves on to Indonesia, South Korea and Japan. The main reasons are economic if the Guardian is to be believed. However, if you were to look at the countries he visits, Indonesia has a GDP growth rate of 6.2%, India has 8.4%, South Korea has 6.1% and Japan has 2.8% growth rates respectively. the importance of these markets to the US economy, only Japan and South Korea matter in the top 10 trading nations.China and Canada are the top nations. One can argue here that Obama is seeking to diversify trade perhaps by offering the world’s third largest economy sops and also seeking to engage Indonesia as an emerging market.What if you were to see beyond this to China-US issues and its trade spats with the US including the currency wars, dollar denominated bonds, huge chunks of Federal reserve gilts and try to correlate this with the issues China has had with Japan and South Korea over territorial incursions as well as its constant rivalry with India? Do you see an Obama administration wishing to flex a China containment strategy by cozing up to China rivals? The enemy of an enemy is a friend, eh?

On why Dubai wants a piece of India’s real estate

The $335M Smart city project in Kerala State has been in the news in recent times. Both partners- The Governments of the emirate of Dubai and the State of Kerala have engaged in mudslinging allegations . One of the major issues has been the demand from Dubai that that Kerala should hand over 12% of the 246 acre project as freehold land. Dubai claims that this would later be sold to investors once the project was completed, yielding a better return for them. Kerala has refused to release the land as freehold and wants Dubai to have it on a long lease basis.
In a state of India where high literacy has created more awareness of global issues and where public engagement with government policies is the norm, selling off Kerala’s sovereign  land to another country will not go down easily. To make matters worse, the state is ruled by the communist government, which once initiated one of the most successful land reforms policy. Many of their previous policies have stirred controversy even though history would later prove the soundness of some of the policies. Of course, the man at the top of the government of Kerala, a communist of the old school does exhibit some idiosyncrasies like calling the CEO of SmartCity , a’ drunk’ Arab and he also suffers from a serious case of the foot-in- the mouth syndrome at press conferences.But let us leave that aside and ask why Dubai still persists in wanting the  freehold land? 23 board meetings later,  the issue still remains and now the emirate wants to go for legal action or arbitration. Why force a state to part with its land? Will Dubai allow the Indian government to have free hold land in Dubai? Why not go down the time honoured route of long term lease? Examples abound of the success of long term lease in protecting investments. Hong Kong is one!.
Several streams of strategic intent can be argued on why Dubai wants the land.
A. To diversify sources of its GDP and wealth creation by moving into a growing and powerful economy.Dubai GDP is Dh68.397 million with projected growth rate of  0.3% growth and strongly dependent on services.
B. The Traditional High ROI model of selling excess land once the project is successful.
C. Locking by investment into one of the fast growing cities in the India, KOCHI with the new found importance of its sea port and the new transshipment container port. Or is it the naval assets and the potential of India only mega ship building facilities.
D. Creating a media circus that would mask an EXIT strategy for the project. The recent sovereign debt rescheduling by the Emirate & over $18 billion sovereign and quasi-sovereign debt obligations in 2011 would add support for this.
E. A delaying tactic to wait for the congress party to come back to power in June  and approve the sale of land. The party has already supported the demand.Many commentators have suggested this would then open up a huge stream of corruption for other vested interests like Indian Business men in the UAE and of course for the Congress Party, which in recent times has made a mockery of the rule of law  with corrupt ministers and officials.
Whatever is the outcome of the project, it has once again proved that doing Business with India still defies normality, even as we strive to be counted amongst the World’s powerful states.

The emergence of a Powerful State within a Neo-liberal conversation

Julian Assange is now free. The whole episode of imprisoning him on  rape charges has turned him into a sort of modern day anti- establishment hero. Many have seen it as the machinations of powerful state actors  willing to bend rules to nail Assange down, no matter how guilty he is of the actual deed. This then brings us to debate of the morality behind such actions by a nation that has prided itself on being so full of democratic ideals that it dares to lecture to other states like China and the Middle East. What is so democratic about stifling the freedom of a man who  gave us a glimpse into the workings of the diplomatic corps. Most governments have denied that the wiki leak cables have any ounce of truth in them. If  it was the truth, Governments should have left these rumours take its natural course and die on its own. Do we not witness many examples of stories particularly those involved with celebrities go down this route and die out? To have gone after Julian Assange in this fashion has added more mystique to his persona and created more distrust of the way democratic and neo-liberalistic govts manage the freedom of the Individual.  We are no different from any of the states run by Tinpot dictators. Even India, hailed as a bastion of democracy has been guilty of state supported suppression of personal freedom (the Emergency Era of Indira Gandhi). What then makes democratic states different from other systems of Government if its citizens do not have personal choices?   I think what we are seeing is a mixture of several forces trying to turn a simple act of leaking information into an media circus. The first force is that of Individuals trying to have their 15minutes of fame without any regard to the effect their actions will have on an ordered global political system. The second force is that of State actors trying to exceed their moral brief in trying to suppress the first force. What both forces forget is that their fight is being played out in a fast moving interconnected world where we – the people are watching and forming perceptions, some of which verge on extremely dangerous responses like cyber attacks and more conventional forms of organised disruptions. Do we need our world to be turned upside down by these careless acts of stupidity by both states and individuals?  Do we need a nanny state to dictate every personal action?

The elephant trumpeting at the Dragon:Stealth Diplomacy in South Asia.

Now you see it and now you don’t. China’s recent display of a stealth fighter has in many ways served its purpose. It is still a long way from being operational and posing a treat to the only other competitor. But it has provoked India and the US to respond with counter moves of their own.India has reacted very strongly to China’s issue of a stapled visas to people of Arunachal Pradesh (or South Tibet) as the Chinese would like to call it and set in motion a diplomatic offensive on China. The Indian Army Chief has denied indian media reports that Chinese Troops have intruded across the Sino-India Border, but accepts that both Armies have engaged in Infrastructure development at the borders.   I am not been paranoid here, but one needs to ask why India took this moment to announce a major revamp of its Army. It has embarked on a $100 Bn drive to acquire capabilties. A new strategic command has been set up and a mountain strike corps aimed at China has been announced.The Indian Navy ties up a pact with Vietnam to modernise Vietnam’s fleet.The US in its big brother role has said it needs to be in the pacific to counter China agressiveness and technological advances.Hillary Clinton has also joined the fray with the usual cry of asking China to revalue the RmB, perhaps thinking that this would decrease trade imbalances as well as reduce China’s soveriegn reserves.It also moves to continue the encirclement policy by engaging with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.What about our part of the world?, Opinions is as usual divided on anything chinese. The UK has welcomed Chinese Pandas and investment into the isles but is furious accoding to the MEP, Daniel Hannan on the EU’s decision to lift the arms embargo on China. Portugal and Spain are happy that the Chinese are buying its debt, but some have concerns of the effect on the relationship between the Euro and a Yuan.What these actions lead, to apart from reaffirming the economic might of China and India,is a dangerous shift to a strongly polarised world where the struggle for regional dominance rides over the more pressing needs of the 2.4Bn people resident in these countries. Where economic growth has created vast opportunties that are squandered on geopolitical games in either Gwadar or Chabhar.Do we need more MAD weapons to shore up national pride or do we take 50% of the people out of poverty? Do we provide more access to health care and education? Or do blow it up on a stealth fighter that none sees anyway or on supporting a huge army which serves no purpose in times of peace. History has a bad way of reminding us of the fate of dominating powers and perhaps these irresponsible emerging states would look back once and think of a better tomorrow

From Raising Chickens in India to Running an English Club

Today’s news that India’s Venkateshwara Hatcheries(VH) has bought the Blackburn Rovers is another milestone for the innovative Indian group. Being the first Indian Owner of a English Premier League (EPL) club is certainly interesting for a company that many in India would associate with being the first to scientifically rear Chickens!!! Not that the Government run research institutes did not do this part of their raison d’être. Venkys was the first commercially successful one and many farmers still swear by their hatchlings.
Why would anyone operating in this industry in India want to be associated with English Football? The answer is strange and yet simple. Anuradha Desai,CEO of VH has been quoted as saying that football would provide a linkage for their global ambitions. It will provide a global reach to markets where they do not currently have access or they cannot compete with their existing suite of products. The group has been integrated vertically in the eggs and chicken business by opening restaurants as well as setting up research facilities to breed better chickens. VH has also diversified into unrelated activities like films, wine retailing, biscuit sales, pet foods and even disinfectants. Some of these forays have failed spectacularly too.
However in their core business, VH’s international strategy seems well thought out. They have tried to source products from several low cost nations like Bangladesh and also have tried to build market share in Africa and the Middle East. But today’s move is radical indeed! Want to use the EPL to launch a European base for future operations? You would have thought running a football club is a different ball game- a tricky one with no relation to the core business. If the Indian newspaper- the Economic times is right, the only possible link is the friendship a VH director has with the Bollywood actor, Sanjay Dutt. Football you see is also entertainment!
Time will tell if this was a right strategy – radical thinking out of the box sometimes does help in Internationalisation. Think NOKIA and the radical shift from Paper to Mobile phones, eh? Will this add more value to the firm or will it be like VH’s other forays and be a £46M loss making move? The answer might blow in the wind sometime in the future.

In the name of a Just God

Having read Damian ‘s Thompson’s piece in today’s Telegraph , on the destruction of Islam’s heritage in its holiest place, I begin to wonder if there is a politico-demonic agenda behind state driven attempts at destroying the purity within religions. How else can you condone the modernization of Mecca by trampling on its link to antiquity, which has for centuries ensured a steady stream of devotees? How else can you justify as the Taliban blasted 3rd Century Bamiyan Buddha statues to oblivion? or in the recent past, the destruction of 15th century Muslim shrines in Timbuktu, northern Mali by hardliners. 

Even within stable democratic systems, this logic still prevails,-the destruction of the Babri Mosque in India with the world’s 3rd largest security apparatus watched in mute spectacle as 2000 lives were lost in the name of God, is yet another case. Another case was the bombardment of Sikhism’s  holiest Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, in 1984 .
Moving down into history, the story of Jerusalem, holy to three major religions and yet claiming its share of daily human lives while politicians dither, stands out as another case of deliberate unresolved political stalemate

Within the emerged world, the secularization agenda of governments in the UK has brought its share of trampling on the sanctity of religions whilst creating more fundamentalists in the process.

Can we leave this behind and return to being normal children of a just creator? Can we return to the simplicity of practicing our beliefs within personal spaces and respecting everybody else as we practice them?  In the process, can we also strip statues/relics/tourist sites of its religious overtones and admire them for being works of Art that they are. In doing this, we respect the effort that would gone into creating them as well honour the creativity of religions in helping preserve culture for generations. And we also deny fundamentalists of the support, they crave to promote deviant behaviour as the destruction of cultural artifacts.

Are we as Karl marx would have put it ,moving into an era where” Religion is an opium to hold the vast masses in the state’s thrall”? Or is there something more sinister in the air?

Why ‘ revolution’ is the new buzz word in the MENA region.

Last week was so tumultuous that some of us rediscovered TV. The Middle East & North African region has come to life and is now the new Mecca for news producers. Revolution, people/mob power, state sponsored killing sprees, toppling of established power structures and the re-affirmation of the right to protest against the ignominies faced by the common people was staple fare.
What is needed now is a perhaps an analysis into the forces that prompted this?
Some commentators have linked this to the domino effect of Tunisia & Egypt where people tasted success. History has provided many examples of this effect. The crumbling of the Berlin wall followed by a series of government failures in the Soviet Bloc is a related event, You can also argue that 1997 Asian Flu that brought chaos and a recession across many states was a harbinger of the more closely linked one in 2008 that brought many of the G7 states to their knees.
What are then the common linkages in the MENA states that are facing turmoil? My first bet would be on the forces of Globalisation as seen through the lenses of a news hungry media empire. The Twitter/face book inspired street protests were brought to life by tantalizing newsfeeds from embedded reporters and a generous support of Arab nationalism.
The second is Economic: Declining state revenues in states like Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen and Oman combined with anger against a growing income disparity in states like Libya, Kuwait & Saudi Arabia. To this when you add a growing young unemployed population with no hopes of earning a decent living, you set the scene for revolution.
The third linkage is the most quoted one, a lack of democracy and the promulgation of ruling dynasties. Imagine your reaction as an unemployed Libyan to the news that the Gaddafi family & cronies control almost everything from lucrative business empires down to the way you think and live your life. The situation is similar to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where thousands of ‘Princes’ have state salaries, freebies and immunity from almost everything while over 40% of the populace live in poverty.
The fourth linkage is geopolitical: a reflection of a transforming Multi Polar world where the Americas of the world must yield to the IRANs and CHINAs of an emerging world. Iran has set this in motion with trying to send two frigates into the Suez across to Syria, leading to a rethinking of our understanding of the military balance in the region. Most of this has been attributed to an isolation of Iran and the Cooperation between Egypt, US and Israel. With regime change in Egypt, there is a fear that this ménage a trios would have to accommodate Iran.
When all of this madness ends, what most commentators argue is that regardless of whether there is regime change or if a transition to democracy happens, the MENA region would have changed so drastically that many of the ‘Power Actors’ would have to rethink their own privileged existence and spend more on the welfare of their states. When that happens, Globalisation would have earned itself pat on the back for changing lives in region long ignored by the rest of the world.

When flying machines refuse to fly

This week has seen a flurry of articles on the engine travails of the A380 with issues on the Rolls Royce variant of the powerful engines that propels the biggest passenger aircraft. The latest news today is of another competing aircraft – the Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s testing being stopped due to an emergency landing on tuesday following smoke in the cockpit. Both these aircrafts have been powered by Rolls Royce engines.(Sic)The similarities with both aircrafts have been the leap in innovation and design that airframe manufcaturers wanted to see in a field that had stagnated after the development of the 747 in 1970s. So we had the Airbus A380 with its large passenger capacity and long range design and the dreamliner with its emphasis on innovation& effieciency.In the background of recent safety issues, can we as mere mortals boarding these aircrafts ask if aircraft design has reached a technological barrier? Is there a limit on how much power and thrust can be developed for large passenger planes? I know that engineers could argue that these are teething problems with a new aircraft and that there is no limit. But then why is that after the 747 in 1970, the next major development was only the Airbus A340 and the Antonovs? Why do we have problems when a radical development is designed in airframes. Will these issues be resolved?As for me, the next time , I book a flight, I will be looking out of the window for smoke.