ARABICA: Beirut Bombing, Iraqi Executions, 125-Year-Old Man

A quick shot of what's brewing in the Arab world ...

Sunset in Aleppo, Syria
Sunset in Aleppo, Syria
Laura Thompson

Reactions to Iranian embassy bombing in Beirut
Many of the tweets in the wake of Tuesday’s bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut that left 23 dead were prayers, representing the sectarian divide between some Sunni Islamists and Shia in the region.

One Twitter user, whose profile picture featured the black and white flag associated with Salafi jihadism (radical Sunni Islamism), tweeted a prayer for the attackers:

اللهم تقبل من قام في هذه الغزوة المباركة #غزوة_السفارة_الإيرانية_في_بيروت

— Ahmedalhamwi (@Ahmedalhamwi1) November 19, 2013

“Dear God, accept those who undertook this blessed invasion. #Invasion of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.”

Iran is the most powerful Shia state while many other Middle Eastern countries have significant Shia populations, often repressed by Sunni-dominated regimes. Some radical Sunnis actually consider Shia to be non-believers.

Other Twitter users mourned the death of the “martyrs” killed in the attack.

#انفجار_بيروت عزاءنا قائم للشهداء في بلدنا الثاني #لبنان رحم الله شهدائكم واشفى الله جراحكم.. ونصركم على اعدائكم.

— mustafa alshakarchi (@mgsiraq) November 19, 2013

Saudi journalist Abdulaziz Alkhamis of Al Arab denounced the attacks altogether, tweeting: “Each killing of innocents — no matter what their nationality or race or religion — is a crime and unacceptable act.”

@Bander150 كل قتل للأبرياء أيًا كانت جنسيتهم وعرقهم ودينهم جريمة وعمل مرفوض

— Abdulaziz Alkhamis (@alkhames) November 19, 2013

Another Twitter user evoked sectarianism when remembering the 1981 attack on the Iraqi embassy in Beirut, for which an Iraqi Shiite party, supported by Iran, was blamed. “It seems that the Iranians have begun to pay their bill for blowing up the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut,” Bander150 wrote, “…as poet Nizar Qabbani shed tears over his wife Balqis.”

Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani famously wrote a heart-wrenching poem about the death of his Iraqi wife Balqis, then employed at the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut. Here is a live recording of Qabbani reading the poem, along with a translation.

Deadly accident in Egypt, as train crushes a bus
A deadly train-bus accident in Egypt left 27 people dead and 29 injured, leading to widespread discussion about the country’s long-crumbling infrastructure.

The Ministry of Transport has blamed the crash on the bus driver’s error, though it also admitted that tens of billions of dollars are needed to improve the country’s deteriorated railway system. Some critics have alleged that the crash happened because the flashing light at the railway crossing no longer functioned, and so the bus driver was unaware of the oncoming train.

The ministry further announced that a development project, in partnership with the UAE, would put in place functioning train crossings in the next 10 months.

Young Saudis turn to the Internet for locally made entertainment
UTURN expand=1], a YouTube channel founded in 2010, offers a variety of series, including 3al6ayer, a Saudi version of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

UTURN represents something new in Saudi Arabia, where local television stations are either controlled by the state, owned by a member of the royal family, or principally religious in nature. Though 90% of Saudi households have satellite dishes and therefore have access to foreign programming, UTURN meets a need by providing local flavor for its 84% Saudi audience.

The station supports itself by creatively inserting products into its shows, working with companies such as Samsung, Saudi Telecom, Dunkin’ Donuts and Coca-Cola. The most recent broadcast with English captions — just activate them via the caption button on the bottom right-hand of the video — is available here.

Jet skiing in the streets of Riyadh
After two hours of rain in the normally arid Riyadh over the weekend, life in the Saudi capital ground to a virtual standstill. Schools were closed, as roads were overwhelmed with anxious drivers unfamiliar with flooded streets. At least one person died: a girl who was carried away by the water after she and her father abandoned their car.

To get around, at least one Saudi resident took to using his jet ski in the streets of Riyadh, causing an Internet sensation.

Death penalty boom in Iraq
International human rights organizations, along with the UN and EU, have condemned Iraq’s rising number of executions, while more bombings have contributed to a level of violence in Iraq not seen for five years. More than 5,500 people have died so far in 2013.

This week alone, 12 Iraqi men were executed, all for terrorism charges. The UN has criticized Iraq’s judicial system as “not functioning adequately” and has also condemned the use of torture to extract confessions, which can then serve as the basis for a death penalty.

Some Twitter users alleged that the death penalty was being selectively used by a Shiite government against Sunnis, reflecting a growing trend of violent sectarianism in the country. “The Iraqi Ministry of "Justice" executed 12 detainees, all Sunnis, in Baghdad’s Kadhimiyah prison,” one Twitter user wrote.

العراق:وزارة "الا عدل" العراقية تنفذ حكم الإعدام بحق 12 معتقلا من أهل السنة في سجن الكاظمية ببغداد #iraq

— شبكة اهل السنة (@ahlalsunna2) November 17, 2013

Another tweeted the names of the Sunnis who had been executed “by the Shiite government.”

#أسرانا_في_العراق الأسماء التي تم تنفيذ حكم الإعدام فيها من قبل حكومة الرافضة في بغداد 6-لطفي عدنان مخلف 7-سفيان حكمت ذياب 8-مجبل حمادي مجبل

— الحوراء العيناء (@alhwra_2012) November 18, 2013

The user called the regime “the refusing government,” a reference to Shia’s theological and historical divergences with Sunnis, the global majority.

Before the U.S. invasion in 2003, Sunnis had long dominated the Iraqi government, most prominently under the powerful figure of Sunni President Saddam Hussein, who ruled from 1979 until 2003.

Hey Albania, can we ask a little favor?
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons remains confident that Syria’s entire chemical arsenal will be destroyed by 2014, though logistical questions remain unanswered — the most important being: Where will the stockpiles be destroyed?

The Albanian government had been considering a request from the U.S. to host the destruction of the 1,200 tons of Syrian chemical weapons. But popular protests pushed the Albanian prime minister to refuse the request, as Albanians across the world took to the streets to protest.

Today's protest against #Syria"s chemical weapons in #Albania in front of the Albanian Embassy in Washington D.C.

— Rilind Latifi (@RilindLatifi) November 14, 2013

Saudi Arabia to build world’s largest metro system
The capital city of Riyadh will be home to the world’s largest metro system at 176 kilometers long. The country is reportedly investing $22.5 billion in the project.

A glossy video has been posted on YouTube showing where and how the train will function — and how much the capital city’s residents will love its free Wi-Fi and air-conditioning.

125-year-old Palestinian man recalls life across three centuries
Omar Rajab Mohammad Toum was born in 1888 and for much of his life traveled widely without any identity papers, through countries without checkpoints. With a life spanning three centuries, Toum recalls the Ottoman Era, British Rule and the Israeli Occupation. Despite widespread polygamy in his time, Toum married only one wife and today has so many grandchildren that he "can’t remember all their names,” he told Al-Arabiya. He estimates their number at about 300.

Toum’s diet consists of olive oil and thyme for breakfast and rabbit meat for lunch, as well a ghee, a type of clarified butter.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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