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United Arab Emirates

Economy

Dubai Delivery Riders Challenge  UAE Royal Family's Absolute Power

Labor strikes are forbidden in the Emirates, but two consecutive work stoppages by food delivery drivers have made news lately. Could it be a sign of challenges to the UAE's unequal and authoritarian economic model?

DUBAI — About a month ago, on May 9, the food delivery drivers who work with Talabat (a subsidiary of the German app Delivery Hero) went on strike in Dubai in order to receive a raise of 2 dirhams ($0.54) per delivery run, up from the current pay of 7.5 dh ($2.04).

Yet any sort of labor strike is illegal in the United Arab Emirates.

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Dubai Postcard: Russian Oligarchs Find Refuge From Sanctions In UAE

Hit with Western sanctions, Russian oligarchs are racing against time to relocate their assets to tax havens. They turn to private banks where transactions, opaque as they are in the UAE for instance, make it almost impossible to trace funds.

DUBAI — In the neo-baroque hall of the Burj Al Arab hotel, surrounded by colored marbles, one can hear all the world’s languages. A mirroring image of this cosmopolitan bubble that Dubai has become over the past 30 years, a sort of Monaco of the Middle East. But from large red armchairs, it’s a Slavic atmosphere that stands out the most.

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At 2,000 to 12,000 euros a night, the rooms at the Burj Al Arab, situated on an artificial island, make it the most expensive palace in the emirate of Dubai — and the preferred meeting site of Russia’s richest businessmen. They are, of course, close to the Kremlin’s networks since it is virtually impossible to make a fortune, and above all, to keep it, without at least getting Vladimir Putin’s seal of approval first.

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Why Middle East Countries Flipped, And Joined Push For Russia To Halt War

Just two days after they'd signed an Arab League statement that did not condemn Russia and instead called for diplomacy, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates joined 138 other nations in a UN resolution demanding Russia halt its invasion of Ukraine.

CAIRO — Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates joined 138 other nations to vote in favor of a United Nations General Assembly resolution demanding Russia halt its invasion of Ukraine and withdraw all troops.

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The move Wednesday by the three regional power brokers came just two days after they signed onto an Arab League statement that did not condemn Russia and instead called for diplomacy, an avoidance of escalation and consideration of the humanitarian situation.

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Unzipped! The African Women Breaking Taboos Of Sexuality

In countries and communities where sexuality is often kept under wraps, more and more women are taking up their microphones, pens and keyboards to talk about intimate issues without filters.

When the subject of African women's sexuality gets media coverage it's almost always a bad thing, says Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, a Ghanaian writer based in London: "through the spectrum of disease, HIV or repeated pregnancies."

While universal access to sexual and reproductive health services remains a central issue in West Africa, Sekyiamah wants to share other narratives. To do this, she co-founded the blog: Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women.

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In The News
Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

COVID & Fertility, Airplanes 5G Warning, R2D2 Moon

👋 ഹലോ!*

Welcome to Thursday, where Kim Jong-un offers to reopen hotline with Seoul, a 96-year-old Nazi war crime suspect flees and a Turkish man gets so drunk he joins a search party for himself. From France, we also take a look, and listen, to the surprisingly loud noises of the countryside.

[*halēā - Malayalam, India & Malaysia]

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Green
Carl Karlsson

Sustainable Hunting? How To Fix Environmental Targets For Hunters

Facing biodiversity loss, hunting can be seen as not only cruel but also damaging to natural ecosystems. Yet hunters argue that their activity is a natural way to “replace” animal predators and a tradition that should be preserved. Can there be a happy hunting medium?

Gazing through binoculars, hunters and environmental activists might appear to be natural enemies.

Particularly as the world is facing challenges that include biodiversity loss and species extinction, hunting can be viewed in ecological terms as not only unnecessary but also cruel, barbaric and damaging to natural ecosystems. In March, for example, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg banned a traditional French bird-hunting practice that consisted of using “glue traps.”

Still, hunters argue that their activity is a natural way to “replace” animal predators by culling herds of prey species and re-establishing a balance in the ecosystem. Hunting is also seen by some as a tradition that should be preserved, having been embedded in natural human culture for thousands of years.

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Geopolitics
Marcos Peckel

Abraham Accords Unleashed: The Middle East Will Never Be The Same

The peace accords signed between conservative Arab states and Israel are the start of an inevitable opening for the Middle East, and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan means a new post-American, post-oil future.

-Editorial-

BOGOTÁ — Days ago, passing through the Ben Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv, I could see prominent signs announcing direct flights between Israel and Casablanca in Morocco, and with Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Manama the capital of Bahrain, and Cairo. These were in addition to the dozen daily flights linking Tel Aviv and Istanbul, which have been operating for some years.

And to think on top of that, we now see the opening of Saudi airspace to flights to Israel, which would have been unthinkable just a few years back.

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Geopolitics
Sébastien Boussois*

Are We Witnessing The Unraveling Of OPEC?

The pandemic has exacerbated tensions within the petroleum cartel, eroded Saudi Arabia's hegemony, and led to shifting internal alliances. An era may be over.

-Analysis-

Everyone is talking about the post-oil era, but in all likelihood, that horizon is still far away. OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) is very much still calling the shots in the energy sector and, consequently, in the global economy. Nothing happens in isolation on the international stage.

In April 2020, Saudi Arabia, struggling with worsening economic insecurity, suddenly opted to increase its oil production within the organization. Now, the kingdom's long-time ally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is looking to do the same thing, and in the process, is openly opposing other members, including Saudi Arabia.

Up until now, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh held a strong bond, forming an untouchable strategic and political axis. In the midst of the blockade crisis, this partnership seemed all the tighter when Qatar, a sworn enemy of the Persian Gulf, chose to leave OPEC. The loss of Qatari opposition had the effect of reducing existing internal tensions within the organization.

Each member country has its own agenda and economic concerns that typically steer the enactment of new and different production rules for the years to come. In the case of the UAE, the pandemic has been very costly, forcing it, among other things, to postpone the Dubai 2020 World Expo by one year.

Qatar stands to gain from these Gulf state tensions

It is therefore all-the-more urgent for the UAE to increase its oil production both to compensate for losses incurred and to quickly increase its foreign exchange earnings. OPEC's goal of reducing oil production until at least through 2022 is unthinkable.

By the end of 2019, the UAE had at least 100 billion barrels of oil in reserve, placing the country in eighth place globally with nearly 6% of total world reserves. It's limited, however, by 2018 OPEC agreements stipulating that Abu Dhabi produce only 3.17 million barrels per day, even though it has the potential to produce almost 4 million.

In the past the UAE has been discreet, opting to remain in Riyadh's shadow. Those days are over, though, and it has now become a major player in the organization. And, after several months of Abu Dhabi trying to quietly distance itself from its historical ally, the crack is for the first time taking place openly.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right) receives Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca via ZUMA Press

Could this shift within OPEC signal the possibility of a violent rift to come between Mohammed bin Salmane — the heir to the Saudi throne — and his Emirati mentor? Perhaps. Either way, what is clear is that Qatar stands to gain from these Gulf state tensions.

The pandemic is largely responsible for the expected overturning of previously long-held alliances. The geopolitical and economic context was already tense, and a year of economic collapse has only exacerbated the situation. In 2020, every member state joined together in accusing Saudi Arabia of unilaterally increasing its production capacity, subsequently causing the price of oil to fall and destabilizing other OPEC countries, namely Russia. The self-interested, lone-wolf style of behavior has not been appreciated.

Thus, the Saudi monopoly is in many areas beginning to crack, and there's no clearer evidence of this than the UAE's public opposition. Saudi Arabia's historic hegemony has been severely undermined.

Still, it is in the interest of many that these tensions dissipate in order to avoid global destabilization. Under the leadership of former President Donald Trump, the United States, an ally of Saudi Arabia, had worked to resolve the crisis. But new President Joe Biden cannot be counted on to keep doing Saudi Arabia's bidding. Since his arrival at the White House in January, the Democrat has stated he wants to assess the relationship between the United States and this ally, and in particular with Mohammed ben Salmane.

Meanwhile, like Qatar, the UAE is also threatening to leave OPEC altogether if its demands are not met. Oil is only one of the things that bind Qatar and the UAE together. Other areas include the terrorist threat in the Middle East, their common opposition to Turkey, with its expansionist aims, and above all the common interest in normalizing relations with Israel. The UAE's threat may soon be realized. If so, the repercussions will be felt all over.

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Sources
Mai Elwakil

Oil On Canvas? Art As Seen Through Black Gold

An art exhibition in Dubai depicts an alternative story of the Middle East, using oil as a starting point.

DUBAI — "Oil is magical and insidious," writes Murtaza Vali, curator of Crude*, the inaugural exhibition at Dubai's Jameel Arts Centre. Oil's influence was central in U.S. President Donald Trump's November 20 statement, in which he affirmed his support for Saudi Arabia following Jamal Khashoggi's murder. "America First," reiterates Trump, citing the Kingdom's $450 billion commitment to the U.S. — mostly as oil proceeds — and its status as the world's second largest oil producer. Aside from its brashness, the statement offers little new.

Throughout the 20th century, the unwavering efforts of western powers to secure their oil needs have assumed a guise of political correctness, and at times cultural diplomacy, both constituting a strategy that is explored and heavily critiqued through several works in Crude.

For instance, the public relations departments of Saudi Aramco (the national Saudi petroleum and natural gas company) alongside British Petroleum produced art publications and films to mediate cultural differences and showcase the developing utopias they were building in a region that, still today, holds more than 70% of the world's crude oil reserves. Persian Story was envisioned in 1951 by BP as the first Technicolor film to be shot in Iran for local screenings, British cinemas and international film festivals.

The artists use the corporation's archive to subvert its propagandistic efforts.

The film was to be shot in Abadan, where "the greatest oil refinery in the world" was located, featuring British physicians called from their dinner tables to operate on Persian workers, alongside local tribesmen trained to become oil technicians — all in BP's newly built oil hub. However, political developments that culminated in the rise of Mohammad Mosaddegh as Iran's prime minister and the subsequent nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry challenged the film's completion, with director Ralph Keene declaring it "unfilmable."

Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi, two of the 17 artists exhibiting in Crude, dug into BP's archive to create their mixed media installation Seep (2012–18). The artists use the corporation's archive to subvert its propagandistic efforts. They also link the events to the extensive collection of Western art amassed by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art from nationalized oil revenues, through framed lists of artists whose works it housed, including Edgar Degas, Marcel Duchamp, Edward Hopper and Paul Klee. The collection was buried in an underground storage room for 20 years as anti-American sentiments grew in Iran after the Khomeini Revolution in 1979. Taking up one of the five galleries dedicated to Crude, Seep makes a subtle nod to the Gulf states' recent use of artistic and cultural production as tools for soft diplomacy.

Through UNstabile-Mobile (2006), Venezuelan artist Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck mixes abstract art with documents. The centerpiece of this work is a delicate black sculpture of dangling amorphous sheets pinned to a star. It is inspired by the hanging mobiles of Alexander Calder; but its shadows, cast upon a white base, map Iraq's oil fields. An accompanying handout presents excerpts from the censored 2001 Energy Task Force documents, drafted by then-U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in collaboration with key figures in the energy industry, highlighting maps of Iraq's oil fields, pipelines and refineries, as well as concessions made under Saddam Hussein. A framed 2006 issue of the New Yorker magazine features a piece by journalist Seymour M. Hersh on the motives behind the George W. Bush's antagonization of Iran in the early 2000s.

While Iran remained isolated, oil producing countries in the region enjoyed a protectorate status and had leverage vis-a-vis the U.S. and western Europe. An example of this dynamic is the 1991 Gulf War, when the U.S. deployed 540,000 military personnel as part of Operation Desert Field. Along with a coalition including NATO, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria, it successfully pushed Iraqi forces led by Saddam Hussein out of neighboring Kuwait. As the Iraqi troops withdrew, however, they set some 680 oil fields ablaze. German filmmaker Werner Herzog chronicles that moment in his 1992 film Lessons of Darkness, composed of aerial footage of the burning fields. Kuwaiti artist Monira al-Qadiri, however, provides a different aesthetic and emotional experience in Behind the Sun (2013), exhibited in Crude. Combining shaky documentary footage of the fires shot on a road trip by journalist Adel al-Yousifi, with a recording of Sufi poetry from Kuwaiti television that features statements praising God like "Everyone enjoys the blessing," the 10-minute video shows smokey clouds morphing into fantastical, blooming red flower-like shapes. In its eerie and cataclysmic beauty, it is reminiscent of Crossroads, about the U.S."s nuclear weapon experiments in Bikini Atoll.

Murtaza Vali, a curator, writer and art historian based between Sharjah and New York, was interested in exploring unconventional relationships to colonialism, and delving into the impact of discovering oil, as well as the temporal optimism associated with these discoveries and their effect on cultural production, urban development and the material lifestyle of local communities. Through a selection of 41 pieces, three commissions and two productions, he seeks to tell a crude, alternative history of modernity in the Middle East, using oil as a "screen" to distract from stereotypical representations.

In a 15-minute video presented across four screens, Wael Shawky's Asphalt Quarter (2003) shows 60 Bedouin children paving an asphalt runway in the desert as we listen to a woman reading technical instructions in English, occasionally interrupted by Figiri singing. Asphalt Quarter is an interpretation of the first chapter in Abdul Rahman Munif's 1984 novel Cities of Salt, in which UK petroleum companies arrive at a fishermen's village and ask members of the local community to build an airplane platformg. The airplane runway as a prop of modernity finds resonance across the region, from Saudi Arabia, where Shawky grew up, to Dubai and Egypt's Western Desert, where he shot his film, playing on the spontaneity of non-actors.

These stories are contrary to the typical Orientalist images promoted by oil companies.

Fleshing out the region's inhabitants, particularly those working in the oil sector, is Saudi artist Manal al-Dowayan in If I Forget You, Don't Forget Me (2012). The highlight of this installation is an intimate video portrait of Saud al-Ashgar, retired senior vice president of international operations at Aramco. Al-Ashgar, meaning The Blond in Arabic, received the nickname for his fair skin and hair. After much traveling in extreme poverty with his family, he studied chemical engineering at the University of Texas and worked at Aramco for 33 years. The sexagenarian tells us us how he learned to read and write at religious schools, and that the green lawns of Texas were his "heaven". One of several portraits filmed by al-Dowayan, the video raises curiosity and empathy towards a little known class that contributed to the region's transformation in the 20th century.

These stories are contrary to the typical Orientalist images promoted by oil companies, which Raja'a Khalid highlights in her series on the leisure activities of Aramco's expatriate staff. Surfing the archives of Aramco World and Fortune Magazine, Khalid reproduced photographs of U.S. executives playing golf in blazing heat and inhospitable sand. We see a topless man in white shorts, steadily positioning his club to make a swing against fire roaring from an oil well, and several black and white photographs of men marking holes with flagsticks for fellow golfers as Bedouins watch in bewilderment.

Golf courses continue to mushroom across the Middle East — only today they are lush green, despite the arid climate and water distress. This phenomenon seems to be coupled with another byproduct of the early oil culture: exclusive gated communities that were originally modeled on company towns. Hajra Waheed tackles this alien urban infrastructure in Aerial Studies 1–8 (2013). Having grown up at the Dhahran compound, Saudi Aramco's administrative headquarters, the artist was interested in highlighting the segregating design of these European upper class enclaves. She prints parts of the walled compound's map — obtained from the company archive — on unexposed Polaroid film, as if the image is gradually developing into view. The work provides a backstory for the development of gated communities for the financially able across the region, while the majority of local and migrant populations are left with dilapidating infrastructure in the older, unrestricted towns.

The old cities weren't always in such a dire state, however, as shown in Latif al-Ani's photographs of Baghdad. Having worked for BP's public relations department in the mid 1950s, then for Iraq's Ministry of Culture and Guidance in the 1960s, al-Ani was repeatedly commissioned to document the developments in urban infrastructure and lifestyle brought about by oil revenues. We see women working in an automated date-packing factory in Basra; a new housing project in Yarmouk, south of Baghdad, shot from above; Baghdad's city center with Jawad Salim's iconic Freedom Monument. The formal composition of these black and white photographs of petrol-fueled developments — shot using a medium format Rolleiflex, occasionally from an airplane — captivated the readers of company publications in the past, just as they continue to beguile us today.

The color and texture of oil is present throughout the different showrooms of Crude. Introductions to each of the show's six sections are printed in hazy fonts on transparent plastic sheets, while wall texts are typed in dark, reddish brown on bluish purple reflective paper. But it is Lydia Ourahmane's installation, Land of the Sun (2014), that truly brings the physicality of oil to our senses. As soon as we enter the last gallery, we smell oil and see a blossoming lemon tree planted in a tire and feeding on used engine oil. The image is striking and initially counterintuitive, as we are constantly reminded of the environmental hazards of oil spills.

The works on display, of which many are made from plastic and petrochemical by-products, might last longer than existing oil reserves worldwide. They constitute a body of work that narrates rarely told stories of the region's murky oil industry.

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Sara Elkamel

What You Hear Is What You Get: Sound As Subversive Art

Beirut-based contemporary artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan uses sounds to shine a light, so to speak, on some of the darkest places on earth.

DUBAI — Crossing a thin, fabric threshold into a pitch black room at Dubai's Madinat Jumeirah resort, visitors come face-to-face with Walled Unwalled, the latest video work by artist and sound investigator Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Inside the room — which feels at once isolating and womb-like — is an image of the artist himself, projected on a glass wall and performing a series of monologues that revolve around legal cases in which evidence seeped, quite literally, through walls — mostly in the form of sound.

Abu Hamdan begins by telling the story of Danny Lee Kyllo, a man who grew "the best weed in Oregon" until the police used a military-grade thermal camera to detect the heat radiating from the walls of his garage. The grower had used high-intensity heat lamps to help his marijuana plants photosynthesize.

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Dunja Ramadan

A Woman's Perspective On Divorce In The Arab World

More and more people in Muslim-majority countries are opting out of their marriages. And often it's the woman who decides to end things.

ABU DHABI — Farah wears her long black hair down and uncovered. Her nails are painted red. And she loves base jumping. She's also a divorcee — as of nine years ago. Her daughter was only 11 months old at the time. Farah herself was just 19. The marriage had lasted two years.

Farah exudes self-confidence and says she's open for a new relationship. She's the opposite of the clichéd image many still have of an Arab woman, of someone forced into marriage, oppressed and wearing a full hijab. Certainly there are still arranged marriages (not to be confused with forced marriages) in the Arab world. But far more often than in the past — and far more quickly — unhappy spouses in this part of the world now separate and divorce.

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Malik Al ash-Shaykh

Hip Hop Wannabes, All The Way In Abu Dhabi

-Essay-

ABU DHABI — For many of us, hip hop has always been more than just another music genre, a passing trend or temporary lifestyle. It's a cultural movement with deep roots that highlight socio-economic disadvantages, an accreditation to the advancement of civil rights progress, and, in sociological terms, an ongoing challenge to the status quo.

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