Sunday, December 20, 2009

Madrid supports political solution to Sahara issue, notes application of Moroccan law in the region

By Moroccan News Agency:

Madrid - The Spanish Presidency said, in a statement issued late on Thursday in Madrid, that the Moroccan law applies to the Kingdom's southern provinces, while efforts are underway at the level of the United Nations to find a political solution to the Sahara conflict.

Spain voiced hope to see peace negotiations resumed rapidly between the parties to the conflict, to facilitate a political, just, lasting and acceptable solution.

"While waiting for a solution to the Sahara dispute in accordance with the UN position, Spain notes that the Moroccan law applies to the Sahara," the statement said.

The Spanish government shares the concern of the international community so that conditions can be met in the up-coming weeks in order to organize new negotiations under the Manhasset process within the framework of the UN principles and agreements to pave the way for a just, lasting and acceptable political solution to the parties, the statement added.

The Spanish government made “a new call on the Moroccan authorities for a return of Aminatou Haidar to take place as soon as possible” due to the deterioration of the “humanitarian situation of this woman,” the same source said.

“The Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and his Foreign Minister have undertaken in recent days steps with the Moroccan authorities to make possible the return of Aminatou Haidar,” said the statement.

According to the Spanish Government, the move (the return of Aminatou Haidar), “will honor HM the King of Morocco and the authorities of the Kingdom, and will once again highlight its commitment to democracy and the consolidation of the rule of law.”

“The Government of Spain hails the policy of modernization and reforms undertaken by the authorities of the Kingdom of Morocco and commits to support it. In this respect, the Government reaffirms willingness to deepen its cooperation within the framework of the advanced status” granted by the EU to Morocco, the statement concluded.

Tifariti rural commune signs cooperation agreement with Mali's Tombouctou commune

By Moroccan News Agency:

Marrakech - The rural commune of Tifariti (province of the Southern city of Smara) signed, here on Sunday, a partnership and cooperation agreement with the commune of Tombouctou (Mali), on the sidelines of the 5th Pan-African Local Government Summit (December 16-20).

The agreement, which was signed by the president of the rural commune of Tifariti, Moulay Khatir Hanini, and the mayor of Tombouctou, Halle Ousmane, refelcts the will of the two parties to establish cooperation and partnership relations in the area of human development.

Held under the patronage of HM King Mohammed VI, the 5th Africities Summit seeks to address a host of issues related to local governments and their role in tackling the current economic crisis.

The 5th Pan-African Local Government Days (Africities) decentralization award was given to Morocco for the achievements made in this area.

Pedways planned to link major buildings in Dubai

By UAE Interact:

After putting a fully integrated public transport system in place, Dubai is now planning to build climate controlled pedways to link major buildings to promote a walking culture.
"Apart from the existing and planned air-conditioned pedestrian crossings, we are planning to build air-conditioned pedways to link major buildings, shopping centres, Metro stations and bus stations.
The aim is to make Dubai a pedestrian-friendly city and to encourage people to walk to cover short distances," said Abdul Mohsin Ebrahim, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Strategy and Corporate Governance Sector at the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority (RTA).
Ebrahim told Gulf News in an exclusive interview that pedways either underground, on the ground or elevated would link buildings in areas such as Sheikh Zayed Road.
"We want to see a 20 per cent increase in pedestrian traffic and a 30 per cent decrease in pedestrian fatalities in the next three years as part of the Dubai Pedestrian Safety and Mobility Plan."
According to the RTA's statistics, 49 pedestrians were killed on Dubai's roads in 2001 and in 2007 the figure was 145. However, the number of pedestrians killed in 2008 was down to 106 as more pedestrian bridges were built and the traffic rules strictly enforced.
Ebrahim said the project would be implemented soon after the completion of a study of the areas where the pedways would be built. They have been designed to link pedestrian crossings and Metro stations with nearby buildings.
The majority of the pedways in the congested parts of the city and commercial areas will be air-conditioned. They will also provide great opportunities for retailers because they will have different kinds of shops, Ebrahim added.
"We are also improving the existing footpaths and building more pedestrian bridges because we consider walking one of the safest transport modes with great benefits." The number of pedestrian crossings would increase from 17 in 2007 to 93 by 2010. – Gulf News

Zayed College for Economic and Legal Studies opened in Bamako

By UAE Interact:

Bamako, Mali - The Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation opened the Zayed College for Economic and Legal Studies was opened in Bamako, Mali.
With a total cost of US$ 6 million including its endowment fund, the new college will provide higher education opportunities for low-income Malian students, in particular graduates of Arabic language institutes, according to Salim Obaid Al-Dhaheri, Director General of the foundation.
The college which will also contribute to higher education in West African countries is part of the Foundation's Africa operations which target the needy and underprivileged communities, he added.
Al-Dhaheri said the project was achieved thanks to the top UAE leadership, namely President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, H.H General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces.
He added that the project was continuously followed up on by H.H Sheikh Ahmed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Foundation.
The Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation, named after the UAE founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed, is funding other projects in Africa. These include digging 1,000 water wells in ten countries which face drought, namely Somalia, Mali , Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan, Ethiopia, (Ogadin region) and Kenyan-Somali border areas.
The Foundation is set to dig 65 more wells in the country's remote and underdeveloped areas according to an agreement with Malian senior officials, he noted. - Emirates News Agency, WAM

Dollar peg restricts UAE money market

By UAE Interact:

The ready availability 
of dollar liquidity to the UAE banks, given the dirham's peg to the greenback, has restricted the country's resolve to develop a more active money market in local currency, a working paper by the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, said.
The Washington-based IMF said it saw drawbacks in the UAE Central Bank's efforts to manage domestic liquidity, including its reserve requirements for banks.
"The features of the UAE money market and of the UAE Central Bank liquidity management operations have been shaped by the tight constraints set by the fixed exchange rate regime,” said authors of the working paper Alexandre Chailloux and Dalia Hakura.
"The large US dollar balances held by local banks, their easy access to the dollar market, and the credibility of the dirham's peg to the greenback, have always allowed the UAE banks to manage their liquidity globally and to regard dollar and dirham financing "as fungible and readily available,” said the IMF paper.
"With US dollar liquidity readily available, banks did not have to worry about raising cash in domestic currency. This, in turn, limited the authorities' resolve to develop a more active money market in local currency,” it said.
The paper argued that the protracted situation of ample liquidity in the system has contributed to limit money market operations to essentially short-term tenors, and also limited the need of local banks to diversify the potential funding sources and instruments used in the interbank market.
The study said lack of diversification in interbank funding instruments and in tenors, has contributed to the vulnerability of the UAE banking system to a bout of liquidity stress, particularly for banks not supported by an overseas parent.
"While foreign banks can use a more diversified set of instruments to fund their asset expansion, thanks to their franchise and the support from their parent bank, local banks had to rely on the growth of their deposit base, and had to borrow abroad but with little insurance on the rollover prospects in case of tensions, unlike subsidiaries of foreign banks,” it added.
The IMF paper, entitled "Systemic Liquidity Management in the UAE: Issues and Options,” argued that as a result of these limitations, the UAE banks have become gradually stretched relative to their retail deposit base with loans to deposit ratios of several banks operating in the country moving well above 100 per cent in 2008.
"Indeed, the chronology of the liquidity squeeze that began in the summer of 2008 suggests that tensions on the international US dollar market triggered the dirham liquidity tensions, and there is little doubt that the lack of depth of the dirham money market contributed to exacerbate these tensions, as local Treasurers could not easily find local funding alternatives nor could they rely on sufficient holdings of genuinely liquid assets,” the IMF said.
The study urged the UAE Central Bank to create what it called "a given level of reserve money shortage” which would enhance its control of money market interest rates and overall money market conditions.
It said this liquidity deficit would not only make the market dependant on liquidity injections but also have the merit of enhancing the functioning of money markets and improving commercial banks' liquidity management standards. – Khaleej Times

Full repayment is option for Dubai

By UAE Interact:

Dubai could fully repay all of the bank debt owed by the property and ports conglomerate Dubai World, financial leaders in London were told during the recent visit by two of the emirate's top officials.
People present at talks between UK and Dubai leaders said the possibility of repaying all bank loans in full was discussed as a medium-term possibility during talks involving Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum and Mohammed al Shaibani of the Dubai Supreme Fiscal Committee.
"They made clear there were a number of options the Government of Dubai saw as feasible and desirable for Dubai World and repayment in full was one of them,” said a person at the talks who declined to be identified because the meetings were private.
The total debts of those parts of Dubai World earmarked for restructuring, mainly the property groups Nakheel and Limitless, amount to some US$22 billion (Dh80.76bn) after repayment of $4bn for Nakheel's sukuk.
The total includes bilateral and syndicated bank debt as well as unpaid bills to contractors. Though no breakdown has been given by Dubai World, analysts have estimated bank loans account for more than half the amount. British banks form the biggest single group by country of origin with exposure believed to be more than $5bn.
The banks are due to meet Dubai World tomorrow in the first formal session of talks aimed at resolving the company's debt position.
"All options remain open and we believe a consensual process with the creditor banks remains the best way forward,” a Dubai World spokesman said.
Sheikh Ahmed and Mr al Shaibani were accompanied at the London talks by Augusto Sasso, an executive of the US restructuring firm Moelis and Co, which has been hired to advise the Dubai Government.
Full repayment would be the preferred option for the creditors, represented by the British banks RBS, Standard Chartered, Lloyds and HSBC, with the regional banks Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank and Emirates NBD representing the Gulf.
Despite the funds from the recent $10bn bond issue backed by the UAE Central Bank, Dubai is not thought to be in a position to repay in full immediately.
"We will have to see what timescale they [Dubai] are looking at as a feasible repayment period,” one banker who asked to remain anonymous said yesterday. "If they can come up with a plan to repay over a period of, say, five years, with a commitment to maintain interest payments over that period, we would have to consider that.”
The question of interest payments is crucial to the outcome of the talks because continuation of payment would mean banks do not have to make a provision for non-performing loans.
This is especially important for UAE banks, the balance sheets of which have already been badly hit by write-offs from the Al Gosaibi-Saad affair in Saudi Arabia, the banker explained.
In the London talks, the Dubai officials also ruled out forced assets sales as an option, especially any disposals of the emirate's most valuable assets such as the ports operator DP World, Emirates Airline and the Jumeirah hotels and leisure group.
Dubai World, under the chief restructuring officer Aidan Birkett of the UK accounting firm Deloitte, has some negotiating positions going into the talks.
"They have got the ‘big stick' of the new bankruptcy law, which would mean parts of Dubai World going into receivership and a scramble for assets in a liquidation. And they have got the leverage over interest payments,” said a source close to Dubai World.
The banks, for their part, have the threat of substantially raising future lending rates for Dubai and other UAE borrowers if no consensual deal is struck.
The meeting is expected first to address the issue of bilateral loans with individual banks that fall due imminently before moving on to syndicated loans and outstanding bond issues.
"We're going to pitch up, hear what they say, give our views, wait for the formal extension request and work on a restructuring,” a Dubai-based banker close to the talks told Reuters.
Cash to keep affected Dubai World businesses in operation can be paid from the $10bn bond only on the condition an extension agreement is reached. – The National

Dubai revises financial laws

By UAE Interact:

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, in his capacity as the Ruler of Dubai, issued a number of economic and financial laws to add to the legislative system in the emirate.
Sheikh Mohammed issued law No 35 of 2009 about the administration of Dubai's government public funds, which includes a number of rulings to substitute law No 18 of 2006. The new rulings cover the regulation of the preparation of annual budgets of all governmental bodies, including those whose annual budgets are listed in the Government's budget, those who enjoy fiscal independence or those entities who receive financial support from the Government.
Government sectors have to abide by a number of regulations, standards and procedures which aim at restricting public expenditure and controlling government incomes, while assembling an accurate database regarding all its incomes and expenditure. Among the government sectors that are affected by this law are the government sectors that enjoy financial independence.
The law stipulates that such sectors and entities will give all the data related to their annual balance and final balance sheet to the Financial Department.
Own revenue
They also have to rely on their own financial resources without receiving any allowances from the public balance, unless they are in the form of loans that have to be paid back in time. Their annual budgets have to be approved by the Dubai Supreme Fiscal Committee.
Government departments shall supply their revenues to the account of the Government's public treasury. They shall not keep any part of their revenues, or spend on their activities or investments or usages. Government sectors and companies that enjoy financial independence shall transfer their surplus revenues to the government's public treasury, as public revenues.
The law has passed with the approval of the Dubai Supreme Fiscal Committee and in cooperation with the Dubai Government Investments Establishment to re-invest profits and revenue surplus before transferring the funds to the government's public treasury. The Financial Department will be supplied with the complete financial data regarding the profits and surplus to be calculated among the government's public revenues.
The law also stipulates that government departments that have their budgets listed in the government public budget shall transfer all the funds deposited by clients as refundable insurance, or any other refundable deposits to the financial department according to the directives issued by this department.
New law
Sheikh Mohammed also issued Law No. 34 of 2009 replacing Law No. 10 of 2006 on setting up the Dubai Export Development Corporation.
The new law is part of Dubai Government's plans to further develop its legislations to cope with the rapid changes and new developments as well as to comply with the best relevant international practices. The new law aims to further strengthen Dubai's status as a global economic export and re-export hub. The provisions of Law 34/ 2009 will contribute to building Dubai's export capabilities, develop its relevant programs, increase its exports, contribute to opening new foreign markets as well as strengthen existing markets to facilitate the access of products and services of companies licensed in Dubai to those markets.
The new law tasks the Dubai Export Development Corporation with the following:
- Implementing programs and initiatives aimed at increasing and marketing exports.
- Revising and analyzing the realities of Dubai's exports as well as determining and tackling barriers to growth.
- Providing commercial data and technical advice to exporting entities.
- Developing and implementing initiatives aimed at raising awareness of export sector as well as the developments related to international trade.
- Helping companies and entities develop their own capabilities to market their products at foreign markets.
Law No. 34/ 2009 also stipulates the setting up of an export marketing program aimed at increasing Dubai's exports and market the products and services of licensed companies and entities operating in the emirate.
Sheikh Mohammed also issued Decree No. 58/ 2009 approving the statute of Dubai International Arbitration Centre. The new law replaces the current statute which was approved by Law No. 10/ 2004.
The new decree aims to revise the effective legislations in Dubai so that they keep pace with the new global developments and comply with the best practices adopted by advanced nations in the areas of resolving disputes through alternative approaches.
The changes which the emirate and the whole world recently had faced created an urgent need to re-consider the statute of the centre so that it to increase its responsiveness to these changes as well as its effectiveness in carrying out its role in resolving disputes speedily though determined and simplified methods to further contribute to the development of Dubai's investment environment. The decree stipulates amendments to the centre's procedural rules, alternative methods of settling disputes etc to regulate its technical, organizational and financial structure as well as increase its productivity, efficiency and effectiveness. – Emirates Business 24|7

Bankers expect 'standstill' nod

By UAE Interact:

London - Bankers expect Dubai World to make a formal request for a "standstill" on its $26-billion (Dh95.4-billion) debt at Monday's creditor meeting, but it could be more than a month before banks agree, bankers said yesterday.
Banks are expected to support Dubai World's request, but what happens next will depend on the information they receive about its finances, as the scale and complexity of the restructuring exercise puts creditors in uncharted territory.
"You can't bet on it, because anything could happen; it could be anything from a complete write-off to 100 per cent recovery," a senior banker said.
The $10 billion in support funds received from Abu Dhabi will be used to keep Dubai World's debt payments current, but a person with knowledge of the situation said these funds were contingent upon creditors reaching a sensible standstill agreement.
The Emirate's new bankruptcy law, introduced by decree last week, could provide additional incentive to strike a deal.
Additional support
Dubai World's meeting with a group of 90 of its lenders on Monday is expected to lead to a lengthy debt rescheduling involving additional support from Abu Dhabi or the UAE Federation, bankers said.
"We're going to pitch up, hear what they say, give our views, wait for the formal extension request and work on a restructuring," a Dubai-based banker close to the talks said.
With so many lenders and different debt instruments involved, Dubai World is unlikely to issue a single "standstill" agreement, a third banker close to the talks said.
"The initial focus is on bilaterals that expire sooner," the third banker added.
A steering committee of Dubai World's largest lenders met the company on December 7. The panel consists of Standard Chartered, HSBC, Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland, Emirates NBD and Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank.
Lenders will take Dubai World's requests back to their credit committees, which are expected to agree to the "standstill" request early in the New Year, several bankers said. A debt restructuring is likely to involve separating Dubai World's companies, they added. – Gulf News

Dubai holds great potential, GCC chief says

By UAE Interact:

In the first response to the recent decision of Dubai World's restructuring, Abdul Rahman Al Attiyah, GCC Secretary-General, said that not only Dubai and UAE, but other GCC states have also faced tough economic challenges in the past.
"However, these states came out of these challenges successfully, showing more vibrancy and potentiality."
In a press statement, Al Attiyah said Dubai holds great potential and high competitiveness, reinforced by its vast infrastructure facilities and regulations that can attract huge inflow of foreign capital in the long run.
The GCC chief hailed Dubai for the transparency and outspokenness it has shown while tackling economic issues as was evident in the latest Dubai World restructuring and financial consolidation. This has also shown that Dubai's economy is an inalienable and integral part of the UAE economy, he noted.
Referring to the GCC monetary union pact that took effect at the Kuwait summit last week, Al Attiyah said it shows the determination of GCC leaders. This is a major achievement of the summit that would bring the Gulf states closer toward launching a single GCC currency.
Al Attiyah said member states will be successful in their efforts to become one of the major economic blocs in the world with a strong single currency. – Gulf News

Sheikh Mohammad meets King Abdullah

By UAE Interact:

H.H. General Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, met King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh on Saturday.
He conveyed greetings from President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan to the Saudi monarch on the recovery of Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz, Crown Prince and Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Defence and Aviation and Inspector-General.
Sheikh Mohammad is accompanied by a high-level delegation that includes Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai Crown prince, Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Bin Sultan Al Qasimi, Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, and other sheikhs and senior officials. - Emirates News Agency, WAM

Saudis and Yemenis versus jihadists

From The Economist print edition

TWO separate incidents underline the growing shakiness of Yemen’s government and the increasing fear of Saudi rulers that their own fairly successful campaign to quash Islamist terrorism may be undermined by neighbouring Yemen’s feared descent into chaos. On November 3rd suspected al-Qaeda fighters ambushed a Yemeni government convoy in the remote Hadramawt region, near the border with Saudi Arabia, killing three senior security men. A day later Yemeni rebels at the other end of the country crossed the frontier into Saudi Arabia, killed a Saudi officer and claimed to have captured a strategic mountaintop inside the kingdom. The very next day, Saudi aircraft were reported to have bombed rebel positions in Yemen.

In the first attack the Yemeni officers were targeted in what may be an emerging strategy by al-Qaeda’s resilient local branch to hit local security forces rather than symbols of “crusader” influence, such as Western embassies. The attack on Saudi Arabia, by contrast, was a spillover from the civil war in northern Yemen between government forces and rebel tribesmen loyal to a powerful local clan, the Houthis. The government accuses Shia Iran of backing the Houthis, most of whose supporters are Zaydis, a Yemeni branch of the Shia faith, whereas the rebels say Sunni Saudi Arabia is backing the government’s ferocious counter-insurgency.

With its rugged topography and fiercely tribal society, Yemen has historically proven as hard to rule as, say, Afghanistan. But seldom has the government in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, faced so many troubles at once, including not just the Houthi rebellion in the north and occasional al-Qaeda attacks in the east but also a brewing independence movement in the south, which was a separate country before Yemen’s two parts united in 1990.

Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has kept his country together since taking power in 1978 by co-opting, balancing and sometimes coercing its tribes and factions. But with his government mired in corruption and oil revenue dwindling fast, his skilful juggling has become trickier to sustain. The Houthis, for instance, accuse him of recruiting fanatical Sunni supporters of al-Qaeda to join the government’s jihad against them. Some al-Qaeda leaders, meanwhile, have endorsed south Yemeni calls for independence.

Yemen’s increasing lawlessness outside shrinking zones of state control around the main cities is one reason why, earlier this year, al-Qaeda’s Saudi branch announced it was moving across the border and merging forces with its brethren in Yemen. The joint operation, calling itself “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”, known in intelligence circles as AQAP, has carried out sporadic attacks inside Yemen, where tacit agreements with the government appear to have broken down. But its main target still appears to be Saudi Arabia.

In August Saudi officials announced the arrest of 44 suspected jihadists and the discovery of large arms caches, including one containing hundreds of bomb detonators and timing devices. Two months later Saudi police near the Yemeni border stopped a suspicious vehicle, sparking a gunfight that killed two suicide bombers, disguised as women. Earlier this month Saudi authorities said that interrogations of the jihadist suspects had led to another arms cache, in the capital, Riyadh, containing 281 AK-47 rifles and piles of ammunition. The arms, they said, came from Yemen.

A fortnight after the arrest of the 44 suspects, an AQAP man nearly pulled off a coup. Claiming to have repented of past jihadism, he said he had returned from Yemen and wished to meet Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the Saudi deputy minister of interior, who led a clampdown on terrorism that has brought relative calm. Security screening failed to detect a bomb concealed in the man’s rectum, which exploded as the prince greeted him. The prince suffered minor injuries.

Income per head in Yemen is barely a tenth of Saudi Arabia’s. The country has long been a conduit for arms, drugs, illegal immigrants and liquor smuggled into the puritanical kingdom. But growing troubles on the border suggest that the old smuggling networks may now serve political groups as well as commercial interests. In any event, Yemen’s government is struggling to defeat the Houthi rebellion, which has displaced 250,000 civilians, and is failing to squash al-Qaeda. So Saudi leaders may be poised to intervene in earnest.

Behind the veil: Why Islam's most visible symbol is spreading

By Caryle Murphy

IYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — It liberates. It represses. It is a prayer. It is a prison. It protects. It obliterates.

Rarely in human history has a piece of cloth been assigned so many roles. Been embroiled in so much controversy. Been so misjudged, misunderstood, and manipulated.

This bit, or in some cases bolt, of fabric is the Islamic veil.

For non-Muslims, it is perhaps the most visible, and often most controversial, symbol of Islam. From Texas to Paris, it has gained new prominence and been at the center of workplace misunderstandings, court rulings, and, in Europe, parliamentary debates about whether it should be banned.

The veil’s higher profile stems from several factors, including greater awareness and curiosity about Islam since 9/11, US military interventions in Muslim countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rising visibility of Muslim immigrant communities in the United States and Europe.

It has also become a magnet for trouble in times of distress, as Illinois resident Amal Abusumayah discovered when a woman upset about the Fort Hood, Texas, killing spree tugged Ms. Abusumayah’s head scarf in a grocery store.

“The veil has become a clichéd symbol for what the West perceives as Muslim oppression, tyranny, and zealotry - all of which have little to do with the real reasons why Muslim women veil,” says Jennifer Heath, editor of the 2008 book “The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics.”

All this attention on the veil brings immense chagrin to Muslims because their faith means so much more to them than what women wear on their heads. But the veil - in its many manifestations - also gives rise to disagreement among Muslims. And their contemporary debate about it, while not yet widespread, raises fundamental questions relating to free will, women’s status in society, and even how to interpret Islam’s holy book, the Koran.

IN ITS BROADEST SENSE, the “Islamic veil” refers to a large variety of coverings. The most widely worn is the head scarf. Covering hair and neck, it can be black and simple, or colorful and sweeping, as in Cairo, where scarves are tightly wound around women’s heads and then cascade luxuriously to their waists.

The head scarf is often referred to as hijab or hejab, an Arabic word meaning a covering or a screen. Mujahabat means “women who are covered.”

There is sweeping consensus among Islamic religious scholars around the world that Muslim women are required to, or at least should, cover their hair. So the head scarf, or some type of head covering, is widely viewed as mandatory in Islam.

Other coverings worn by Muslim women also fall within the category of “veil.” Depending on the country, these outfits can be regarded as either optional or compulsory. Often they are said to be required on either religious or cultural grounds - categories that overlap in most Muslim countries.

Iran’s traditional covering, for example, is the chador, an ample black cloth that fits over the head and reaches to the ground. Women often hold part of it over their face in mixed company. The more modern Iranian cover is a head scarf accompanied by a longish, coat-type garment.

Women in Saudi Arabia wear an oblong black scarf flipped twice over their heads, along with the abaya, a loose black robe. Many add the niqab, a square piece of cloth that covers the mouth and nose, or sometimes hides the entire face with only a slit for the eyes.

The most restrictive covering by far is the burqa of Afghanistan, a long billowy smock that totally covers a woman from head to toe, including her face. She sees the world only through a small square of cloth webbing.

NON-MUSLIMS TEND TO REGARD VEILING as a sign of women’s repression. That is true in highly patriarchal societies like Iran and Saudi Arabia, where women have second-class status and are required to cover both head and body when outside the home.

But most Muslim women, including most in the US, voluntarily opt to wear the head scarf out of religious commitment. They believe they are following God’s wish, and reject suggestions that their head covering means they have less autonomy at home or on the job.

“It’s something that you love to do because it makes you feel that you are closer to Allah, that you’re doing the right thing,” says Reem Ossama, an Egyptian mother of three who covers her head when she leaves her home here. “Allah ordered us to wear the scarf ... to protect our dignity, to protect women, [so we would] not be looked at just as a beautiful body, a beautiful face, [so others would] look at our minds and our personalities.”

In addition to religious reasons, many Muslim women have adopted the head scarf to show pride in their faith, particularly in times like these when Islam is under attack from non-Muslims. It’s a way for women to say, “I’m proud to be a Muslim and I want to be respected.”

This is an especially strong sentiment in Muslim countries where people feel their Islamic identity is threatened by the global spread of Western culture. For many women in these countries, being “authentic” means wearing the Islamic head scarf.

Other reasons for veiling involve less freedom of choice. Some women, especially in developing countries, say they put on the head scarf to avoid harassment and stares from men, especially in crowded spaces such as public transportation systems.

More commonly, there is family pressure from fathers, husbands, or brothers who want their female relatives to be seen by society as a “good girl” or “good woman.” These men are responding to their societies’ prevailing norms, which presume that veiled women are obeying Islam’s prohibitions on dating and extramarital sex.

Some men ask their relatives to veil because they “are jealous,” says Ms. Ossama’s husband, Mohamed Gebriel. “They don’t like other men to see their wives.” Mr. Gebriel, who is managing director of a Riyadh business consultancy, isn’t one of these men. But he says that, like the “vast majority” of Muslim men, he respects women who cover because “we see that as a sign that she appreciates herself, that she has some dignity, that she’s not into that materialistic thing and trying to be a sex symbol.”

At the same time, Gebriel stresses that he has “many Muslim friends, female friends, who are not wearing hijab and it doesn’t bother me ... because at the end of the day, it’s one small thing that represents the entire entity ... of this human being.”

GENERALLY, ISLAMIC RELIGIOUS SCHOLARS cite two verses in the Koran to support their consensus that Muslim women must, or should, cover their hair. The first is Verse 33:59, addressed to the prophet Muhammad and his family: “O Prophet! Tell Thy wives and daughters And the believing women, That they should cast Their outer garments over Their persons (when abroad): That is most convenient, That they should be known (As such) and not molested.” Verse 24:31 states, “And say to the believing women That they should lower Their gaze and guard Their modesty; that they Should not display their Beauty and ornaments except What (must ordinarily) appear Thereof; that they should Draw their veils over Their bosoms.”

But, writes sociologist Ashraf Zahedi, a scholar in residence at the University of California, Berkeley Beatrice Bain Research Group, “[T]hese citations emphasize modesty and covering the bosom and neck. There is no reference to covering female hair or to the head veil.”

Ms. Zahedi is among a small but growing number of female Muslim scholars questioning the long-held consensus on head covering. Leila Ahmed, Amina Wadud, and Asma Barlas, to mention others, argue that because most interpretations of the Koran throughout the ages have been done by men, the holy book’s support for gender equality has been obscured.

As Ms. Barlas, a professor of politics at Ithaca College in New York, said in a 2006 address at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, “I am among those ... who argue that the reason the Koran has been read as a patriarchal text has to do with who has read it, how, and in what contexts. To make it clear, historically only male scholars have read the Koran ... always within patriarchies. That is why I call the dominant reading of Islam a misreading, which implies, of course, that I believe there can be a correct reading of Scripture.”

In a phone interview, Barlas noted that the Koran also calls on men to be modest (Verse 24:30). But, she said, “we never talk about Muslim men’s sexual morality.... That’s why I get upset sometimes with all the discussion of the head covering because it seems to me that men benefit from this a lot.
“It basically lets them off the hook from having to talk about what might constitute good behavior on their part....” she said. “There’s no discussion of how they should be dressing or behaving.... Why is the onus always on women to be the custodians of the community’s morality or identity?”

Other Muslim women are using the political arena to challenge the dominant view that Islamic modesty requires a head covering. Last May, four women made history when they were elected to Kuwait’s National Assembly. Conservatives, outraged that two of the women - Rola Dashti and Aseel Al Awadhi - do not wear head scarves, petitioned a court to bar them from parliament because they violated Islamic law by not covering their heads.

In October, Kuwait’s highest constitutional court handed the women a legal victory when it dismissed the petition, ruling that the country’s Constitution guarantees gender equality and freedom of choice in religion.

MODERN HISTORY OFFERS MANY EXAMPLES of how men and male-dominated political regimes have used veiling as a way to control women, and by extension society, as well as a means to promote ideologies, whether secular or Islamic.

In the first half of the 20th century, for example, secular-oriented leaders in Turkey and Iran who were keen to modernize their countries along Western lines banned the veil in public - to the great distress of many devout Muslim women. In Iran, women who refused to unveil were forcibly removed by police from public establishments. Many refused to leave their homes, Zahedi noted in her study of veiling in the fall 2007 issue of the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies.

Today, Turkey still forbids head scarves at state-run universities. In Iran, the 1979 Islamic revolution reversed the veil ban and went to the opposite extreme, requiring a complete cover of head and body for all women, even non-Muslims. The point was to vividly demonstrate that Islam - not the West - was the controlling reference point for Iranian society.

Zahedi noted that Iran’s revolution brought to the fore deep-seated notions about the erotic nature of female hair. One conservative male writer had opined that “it has been proven that the hair of a woman radiates a kind of ray that affects a man, exciting him out of the normal state.”

Veiling was justified by “the need to control female sexual power,” Zahedi added. And instead of “questioning the ... uncontrollable sexual appetite of some Iranian men,” she wrote, “the regime forces Iranian women to conceal their hair and bodies to protect those men.”

Similar rules were imposed when the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in 1996. They made the burqa, long worn by traditional women for both cultural and religious reasons, required for all Afghan women. During Algeria’s bitter civil war in the 1990s, radical Islamists killed unveiled women. And in Hamas-controlled Gaza, schoolgirls have been told to don head scarves. (Meanwhile, a few miles away in Israel, the Orthodox Jewish community requires its married women to cover their hair.)

Barlas also accuses Westerners of politicizing the veil when they use it as a symbol for Islam, usually to critique women’s repression in Muslim societies. “I have been challenging many Western audiences to tell me what they think a ‘typical’ picture of a US-American woman would be,” she wrote in an e-mail. “When they find it hard, I ask why they pick only a ‘veiled’ woman to represent all Muslim women.”

TODAY, IT IS THE MOST severe forms of the veil - the niqab and the burqa - that are generating heated debate in Europe and some Muslim majority countries.

Islamic religious scholars disagree on whether Muslim women must cover their faces. In Egypt, Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, head of Cairo’s Al Azhar University, a renowned center of Islamic learning, recently reprimanded a girl for wearing a niqab when he visited her school. He ordered her to remove it, saying that it “has nothing to do with Islam and is only a custom.”

Indeed, the niqab was never an indigenous form of dress in Egypt. But in recent years, it has been adopted by young women who have turned to a more conservative, Saudi-style practice of Islam. The Egyptian government, citing security, has banned it from female dormitories at universities.

“We all agree that niqab is not a religious requirement,” Abdel Moati Bayoumi, an Al Azhar affiliated scholar, told the Associated Press. Noting that the “Taliban forces women to wear the niqab,” Mr. Bayoumi added that “the time has come” to confront the idea that the niqab is mandatory.

Even in Saudi Arabia, where the niqab has deep roots in tribal customs and is widely worn, women have different opinions about it. “What is the most beautiful part of a woman?” asks Saudi newspaper reporter Laila M. Bahammam. “It is her face and her hair. So this beauty should be covered.”

But Ahlam A. Al Qatari, a Saudi physician, says that she “would launch a campaign against the niqab” if she could. While she is “a hundred percent” with covering hair, she adds, the niqab “is different.... It’s a tradition rather than an Islamic ritual or rule. In Islam, you cover your hair, not your face, and I think for civilized communication between different nations, different people, to know others actually, you have to expose yourself face to face, with eye contact.”

In Western countries, the face veil has become problematic for a variety of reasons. In an age of increased security, it is necessary for policemen, airline ticket agents, judges, and even teachers in schoolrooms to identify those in front of them.

Also, it challenges the widespread assumption in Western culture that masks usually denote deceit or something to hide. In societies where high stock is placed on face-to-face communication, the face veil can be a high barrier to assimilation, not to mention a cause for anxiety. Former British Foreign Minister Jack Straw has called the niqab a “visible statement of separation and difference” that is “bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult.”

Several European countries have considered proposals to ban the niqab and burqa in public, and a leading Muslim organization in Canada recently urged the government to pass such a ban.

In France, where the Islamic head scarf (and other “conspicuous” faith symbols) was banned from state schools in 2004, President Nicolas Sarkozy says there is “no place for the burqa” in his country. But after studying the issue, the French parliament last month decided not to formally ban the burqa, though it may recommend against its use in some public places, news agencies reported.

The Islamic head scarf, however, is another matter. As the most common type of Islamic veil, it now occupies a prominent place in both Western and Muslim majority countries as a statement of religious values.

Not to mention as a fashion statement, as Reem Ossama is eager to demonstrate. She opens a drawer to retrieve several issues of “Hijab Fashion,” a Cairo-based glossy magazine full of models in colorful, ankle-length dresses and pantsuits - all with elaborate matching head scarves.

“We have fashion of our own, we Muslim ladies,” Ossama says while flipping pages. “You can cover and be beautiful.”

Taiwanese protest over China talks

Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Taiwan's third-largest city to protest against closer ties with neighbouring China.

The mass demonstration in Taichung on Sunday came ahead of a visit to the central city by a senior Chinese envoy for talks on a free trade deal.

Organisers said that as many as 100,000 people had joined the noisy protest as it made its way through the city, but police said there had been between 20,000 and 30,000.

"Go! Go! Taiwan!" chanted the protesters, many of them wearing orange headbands. "Taiwan, China - one country on each side!"

The march, organised by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, is expected to be followed by more protests this week, including at the airport when Chen Yunlin, Beijing's senior negotiator with Taiwan, arrives on Monday.

Unification fears

Chen will meet P.K. Chiang, his Taiwanese counterpart, to discuss the proposed Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), a pact aimed at cutting import tariffs and opening the banking sector that should be signed next year.

"Many people in the crowd are business people who are concerned that their businesses will hurt if the free trade talks go ahead," Al Jazeera's Steve Chao, reporting from Taichung, said.

"It's all very clear [China] wants to use the economy as a means to force us to unification"

Hsu Wen,

"A lot of criticism here has been directed at Taiwan's president, Ma Ying-jeou. They feel he is moving too far, too fast with China and they are calling on him to rein back the momentum on warmer relations with China."

Hsu Wen, a 55-year-old businessman from the southern city of Kaohsiung, told The Associated Press news agency: "It's all very clear [China] wants to use the economy as a means to force us to unification."

Some protesters feared the ECFA would lead to a flood of competing goods from China, while other called for the talks to be more transparent.

"Ma Ying-jeou, our president, wants to sign ECFA but hasn't received public approval for it," Charles Lee, president of an environmental group in southern Taiwan, said.

"We're worried he will sell us out."

The Ma administration has promised the pact will lift growth and create employment.


Also among the thousands of people on the streets of Taichung were supporters of a formal declaration of independence from China. Some waved banners advocating "one side, one country".

China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949, when the communist forces of Mao Zedong won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to the island.

Beijing has previously vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.

Since assuming office, Ma has eased tensions to their lowest level in 60 years, turning his back on his predecessor Chen Shui-bian's pro-independence policies while pushing business and trade links.

Regular air and sea links have been established across the strait separating Taiwan from China and restrictions on Chinese investment in Taiwan have been ended.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Colombia 'facing foreign threat'

By Al Jazeera Bureau:

Colombia's defence minister has said that his country is facing a foreign military threat for the first time in years.

Gabriel Silva made the remarks in an interview with El Tiempo newspaper on Sunday, a day after Bogota announced it would build a new military base near its border with Venezuela.

Tensions between Bogota and Caracas have soared since Colombia signed a deal giving US troops greater access to seven military bases for anti-drug operations.

Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, says the presence of US troops in his Latin American neighbour poses a threat to his country and has ordered his forces to "prepare for war".

He has also restricted trade with Colombia as the dispute between the two nations has grown increasingly bitter.

Foreign 'risk'

Silva did not specifically mention Venezuela in his interview with El Tiempo, but spoke of the "growing risk" of a foreign power taking action against Colombia.

"In Colombia we have concentrated on the internal threat. But the risk is growing because what has been clearly and directly presented, is an eventual action against Colombia from outside," Silva told the newspaper.

"Colombia was not used to thinking about this eventuality in its foreign policy and defence strategy. Unfortunately now we have to put this variable on the map. There is a risk of a foreign aggression."

The new Colombian military base is to be built on the Guajira peninsula, near the city of Nazaret, and is expected to house about 1,000 troops, Silva said as he announced the development on Saturday.

"It is a strategic point from a defence point of view," he said.

Meanwhile, General Oscar Gonzalez, the commander of the army, said that six air battalions were being activated, including two on the border with Venezuela.

Tense relations

Relations between the two countries have previously looked as though they could spill over into conflict along the 2,200km border.

Colombia accused Venezuela of failing to deal with guerrillas hiding in its territory as the Farc and ELN Colombian rebel groups came under increasing pressure from a US-backed military offensive.

While Chavez ordered tanks to the Colombian border in 2008 after Colombia raided a suspected rebel base inside Ecuador.

Rafael Correa, Ecuador's president and an ally of Chavez, had condemned the raid as an aggression against his country, but tensions eased after the leaders met at a summit a week later.

The two Andean countries also almost went to war in 1987 in a dispute over a maritime border in the Caribbean Gulf.