Monday, October 29, 2007

The Man from K.A.U.S.T.


Imagine the Swiss government chiding the U.S. over a lack of transparency in its banking practices, and you’ll have some idea of British reaction to Saudi Arabian King Abdullah’s statement that the UK is not doing enough to fight international terrorism.

On the home front, Abdullah plans to turn the tide of Arab underachievement by creating a Saudi M.I.T. In an echo of past Third World megaprojects, the king is building an $12.5 billion university campus in the desert near Jidda, and will try to lure top-notch foreign talent to teach and staff there. (The Times' Thanassis Cambanis couldn't help but use the term "gargantuan" to describe it.)

Abdullah has taken the job of building this King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) away from his own education ministry and will ban the mutawwa—the kingdom’s religious enforcers—from within its walls. This will supposedly allow coeducation and a freer exchange of ideas than anywhere else in Saudi society.

The king imagines that KAUST will aid Arab development and begin transforming Saudi society from the top down. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia’s problem has always been the gap between its elites—who will continue to go to U.S. and UK institutions ranging from Oxford to Appalachian State regardless—and its populace. No one questions the level of education of Saudi elites or their relative open-mindedness and liberality compared with Saudi society at large.

Abdullah’s money might be better spent on the riskier and far more problematic path of initiating broad-based reform in Saudi society. It would be inexpensive, for example, to ban the mutawwa from a small but ever-expanding list of public places until their power is attenuated.

But this would take decades to accomplish, and the king may not feel he has that kind of time. Better to throw money at the problem and earn a quick score with the international media.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Universal Symbol


Anxious about declining numbers of foreign tourists to the U.S., Walt Disney Co. has created a seven-minute film for the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to welcome visitors from overseas.

Backed by some very upbeat, Aaron Copland-esque orchestral music, the film’s hundreds of Americans pause for a moment to smile for the camera. Cuts of these welcoming, diverse mugs are interspersed with photos of famous American landmarks (the Chrysler Building, Hancock Building, Golden Gate Bridge, Lincoln Memorial, Statue of Liberty) and landscapes (canyons, forests, seacoasts, painted desert, amber waves of grain).

The film portrays an almost exclusively blue-collar America at work: cooks, waitresses, building framers, showgirls, cowboys, truck drivers, baristas, farmers, fishermen. Only a few shots—a businessman walking down a city street in his suit and a shot or two of ministers, for example—reveal a white-collar world, and these images are general enough to be understood immediately.

There are problems with portraying white-collar work in a photograph or two. For example, a photo of me pausing from my work would show me turning my head to glare at the camera, never taking hands from the laptop’s keyboard except to gulp coffee. These actions would not be accessible to the casual foreign visitor in a second or two of screen time: What is that man doing?

Focusing on visible, blue-collar America serves two purposes: It portrays occupations that foreign visitors can connect with immediately regardless of their own station in life, and indirectly shows Americans as more down-to-earth and humble than many foreign visitors may think from portrayals in their own media.

There are no shots of office workers, none of the White House or U.S. Capitol, none of Disney properties, and none of any famous American.

The film, which Disney produced entirely on its own dime, is currently being shown at entry points at the Washington Dulles and Houston airports; see State’s press release for more details.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

China Is the New America


Andy Valvur forwards "Struggling Chadians Dream of a Better Life--in China," wherein Chadians who have never been to the U.S., and frequently have never been outside Chad, nonetheless see the PRC as their bright, shiny, 21st-century place to do business:

Behind the white archways of the old colonial market [in N'Djamena, Chad's capital], Abdulkarim Mahamat, 24, was selling soap and batteries to the few customers who dropped by. Things were rather slow, and the young man explained how he often imagines himself elsewhere -- flying off to a promising new land of cheap socks and smoothly paved roads.

"If I can go to China, life will be better than it is now," he said, adding that he has started saving up for his ticket. "I'll make a lot of money, and life will change. I can return to school, build a nice house and have a family. People say that China is a good place and everything is cheap."


The idea of China as a symbol of potential prosperity is taking hold, seeping into the consciousness of ordinary Africans and occupying a place that the United States, and to some extent European countries, once claimed.

Around here, the American dream is something quaint and unrealistic, while a new kind of Chinese dream, more pragmatic and attainable, seems ascendant.

"The United States is a nice place to visit," said Ahmet Mohamet Ali, a trader who had just returned from his first trip to China. "China is a place to do business."

I used to laugh at the idea that anyone might prefer China's relative poverty and political repressiveness to U.S. affluence and freedoms. But Africans have been sufficiently poor and closed out of economic opportunity, and the PRC is becoming less oppressive over time, so maybe the stars are aligning for an African-Chinese alliance that runs deeper than simple economics.

Of course, these dewy-eyed Chadians probably haven't heard much about this little episode.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Return of the Non-Native, Part Two


The Counterinsurgency Field Manual is U.S. forces’ official doctrine on combating insurgencies around the world. Co-authored by the current U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, it discusses the role of intelligence in great detail—and not just “mines have been laid on the road 2.5 km north of Tikrit” intelligence, but the understanding of a country’s culture, history and personalities that helps counterinsurgents make progress with the host nation’s citizens. (Download free here, order hard copy here.)

Section 3-2 reads:

Intelligence in [counterinsurgency] is about people. U.S. forces must understand the people of the host nation, the insurgents, and the host-nation (HN) government. Commanders and planners require insight into cultures, perceptions, values, beliefs, interests and decision-making processes of individuals and groups. These requirements are the basis for collection and analytical efforts.

That expertise has to come from somewhere, and once again, anthropologists are in demand. In “Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones,” David Rohde explains how academic anthropologists are helping U.S. forces abroad:

SHABAK VALLEY, Afghanistan — In this isolated Taliban stronghold in eastern Afghanistan, American paratroopers are fielding what they consider a crucial new weapon in counterinsurgency operations here: a soft-spoken civilian anthropologist named Tracy.

Tracy, who asked that her surname not be used for security reasons, is a member of the first Human Terrain Team, an experimental Pentagon program that assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to American combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her team’s ability to understand subtle points of tribal relations — in one case spotting a land dispute that allowed the Taliban to bully parts of a major tribe — has won the praise of officers who say they are seeing concrete results.

Of course, some anthropologists are uncomfortable with academics’ work with the military:

Citing the past misuse of social sciences in counterinsurgency campaigns, including in Vietnam and Latin America, some denounce the program as “mercenary anthropology” that exploits social science for political gain. Opponents fear that, whatever their intention, the scholars who work with the military could inadvertently cause all anthropologists to be viewed as intelligence gatherers for the American military.

Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University, and 10 other anthropologists are circulating an online pledge calling for anthropologists to boycott the teams, particularly in Iraq.

“While often presented by its proponents as work that builds a more secure world,” the pledge says, “at base, it contributes instead to a brutal war of occupation which has entailed massive casualties.”

Prof. Gusterson may be confusing the Bush Administration’s larger political objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S. military’s objectives in those nations. Whether you think the president ultimately wants a secure, democratic Iraq or simply a Mesopotamian gas station, it’s tough to disagree with having anthropologists on board to lessen friction between U.S. forces and civilians, decreasing bloodshed and the brutality that Prof. Gusterson rightly fears.

Ultimately, social-science help will enable U.S. forces to withdraw more quickly from the countries experiencing “occupation,” whether they leave behind stable governments or not. (How grandly Prof. Gusterson overstates the U.S. presence abroad, as though U.S. stormtroopers leer from every Afghan and Iraqi streetcorner.)

The anthropologists have quickly found fans among line officers in Afghanistan, who continue to face off against al-Qa’ida and the Taliban:

The anthropology team here also played a major role in what the military called Operation Khyber. That was a 15-day drive late this summer in which 500 Afghan and 500 American soldiers tried to clear an estimated 200 to 250 Taliban insurgents out of much of Paktia Province, secure southeastern Afghanistan’s most important road and halt a string of suicide attacks on American troops and local governors.

In one of the first districts the team entered, Tracy identified an unusually high concentration of widows in one village, Colonel Woods said. Their lack of income created financial pressure on their sons to provide for their families, she determined, a burden that could drive the young men to join well-paid insurgents. Citing Tracy’s advice, American officers developed a job training program for the widows.

In another district, the anthropologist interpreted the beheading of a local tribal elder as more than a random act of intimidation: the Taliban’s goal, she said, was to divide and weaken the Zadran, one of southeastern Afghanistan’s most powerful tribes. If Afghan and American officials could unite the Zadran, she said, the tribe could block the Taliban from operating in the area.

“Call it what you want, it works,” said Colonel Woods, a native of Denbo, Pa. “It works in helping you define the problems, not just the symptoms.”

Monday, October 08, 2007

Women Behind the (Saudi) Wheel


I was out of town in Dallas two weekends ago, but luckily Amy, my wife, spotted “Saudis Rethink Taboo on Women Behind the Wheel” in the September 28 Times for me. Apparently women may now drive cars in Saudi science fiction, a great leap ahead from women’s driving being an entirely taboo subject:

In a recent episode of Saudi Arabia's most popular television show, broadcast during Ramadan this month, a Saudi man of the future is seen sitting in his house as his daughter pulls into the driveway, her children piled into the back of the car.

''Where have you been?'' the father asks.

''The kids were bored, so I took them to the movies,'' she replies, matter-of-factly, as she gets out of the driver's seat.

The scene may appear mundane, but in Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden to drive -- and, by the way, where there are no movie theaters, either -- the skit portends something of a revolution. From a taboo about which there could be no open discussion, a woman's right to drive is becoming a topic of growing and lively debate in Saudi Arabia.

Coming after other recent changes -- women may now travel abroad without male accompaniment (though male permission is still required), seek divorce and own their own companies -- the driving discussion is noteworthy. Whether it signals that women will actually be driving soon or merely talking about it openly remains to be seen.

It’s particularly significant that this TV show aired during Ramadan, where TV viewership in the Muslim world skyrockets to levels that the U.S. sees only during the Super Bowl.

Hassan Fattah’s article goes on to tie the increased discussion of women’s driving to the squeeze on the kingdom’s middle class; as women are forced out into the workplace and become economic actors, they also gain a say in what happens to their income.

This puts women’s role in Saudi society somewhere in the American 1870s—economic instability forces households to seek outside income via women. The 19th Amendment is still decades away, but hopefully it is as inevitable in Saudi Arabia as it was in the U.S.
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