Here are some of the recent Editorials I wrote for The Gulf Today. (Posted for my records).
Dubai Expo will open up
Every five years and for a period of six months, World Expos attract millions of visitors. The Expo has never been held in the Middle East, Africa and South East Asia in the history of the event. But in six years’ time, history will change.
The Expo 2020 would take place from October 2020 to April 2021 in the dazzling city of Dubai. The hosting of Expo 2020 is expected to yield Dhs89 billion in added economic activities and raise the overall GDP of the UAE in a variety of sectors.
As Reem Al Hashimi, UAE Minister of State and the Managing Director of the Expo 2020 Executive Body, stated, the Expo 2020 will provide 277,000 new job opportunities and will have a positive and comprehensive economic impact on Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) since they constitute about 95 per cent of all registered companies in the UAE.
Each World Expo is a catalyst for economic, cultural and social transformation and generates important legacies for the host city and nation. For instance, Shanghai 2010 World Expo helped transform a heavily industrial city-centre area into a thriving cultural and commercial district while also bringing its theme “Better City, Better Life” to the attention of 73 million people.
The next World Expo takes place in Milan, Italy, in 2015. The focus: “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” The UAE will host the World Expo 2020 under the theme ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’.
China and India are among UAE’s biggest trading partners and the country’s trade with Africa has increased 600 per cent since 2000. It is forging new trade relations with Latin America in addition to its strong relations with over 220 countries.
Embracing more than 200 nationalities and cultures, the UAE is already an important international tourism destination with more than 95, 000 hotel rooms and 11 million tourists in 2012. The UAE is also home to 63-business council and a financial centre for 18 of the world's top 25 international bank, six of the top 10 law firms and six of the top 10 insurance companies.
The awarding of Expo 2020 to Dubai reflects the confidence of the international community in UAE’s abilities. When there is clarity in vision and aspiration to achieve big, countries can take peace, progress and prosperity to new heights. In that sense, the UAE has repeatedly proved to be a highly progressive country serving as a model for the rest of the world.
Developmental projects are in full swing giving every reason for visitors and residents of Sharjah to smile. Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi has stated that he is personally keen on drafting parks and roads because all these projects would eventually reflect Sharjah’s civilisation and add to the UAE’s beauty.
A number of projects in celebration of Sharjah as Capital of Arab Tourism 2015 are underway. Sheikh Sultan himself took part in designing the projects, which included Al Qasimiya University, the hugest project at the emirate level. The Dibba Water Canal is expected to be inaugurated within 10 days.
Most projects are likely to be completed before 2015 concurrently with Sharjah celebrations for being selected as capital of Arab tourism. These include Wasit sanctuary, Al Hafiya sanctuary and Maliha museum in which archeological and environmental tourism will be demonstrated.
That is not all. Sheikh Sultan has also announced the establishment of two institutions, one concerned with labour disputes and the other with security and safety as part of a programme titled, “Sharjah is a Healthy City.” Besides, land has been granted for building an integrated sports city with fully equipped stadium on Al Dhaid road in Sharjah City.
On Sharjah’s travel horizon is the Sir Bu Nair Island tourism project, slated for completion in 2017. The island will harbour a five-star hotel and resort, hotel apartments and an amphitheatre among other attractions.
The emirate has emerged as a favourite holiday destination for visitors from around the world, especially those from Europe and neighbouring Gulf countries. It has been recognised as the home of Arab and Islamic culture and civilisation. It was declared the Cultural Capital of the Arab world in 1998 by Unesco. Recently, the Arab tourism ministers' summit in Cairo selected Sharjah as the Capital of Arab Tourism for Year 2015.
According to the Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority, the first quarter statistics for Year 2014 showed remarkable growth in the tourism sector compared to the sector's performance during the same period last year.
The total number of hotel guests touched 600,000 against 515,947 guests last year. With hotel apartments recording similar increase, Sharjah has registered a healthy 15 per cent increase in visitors over the same period last year.
Tourists from Europe are the top tourism-generating destination bringing in over 251,000 visitors. As always Sharjah welcomed large numbers from visitors the neighbouring Gulf states. Way to go, Sharjah.
Aid delayed is
At a time when more than nine million Syrians have been displaced by the country’s civil war, it is distressing to note that weak co-ordination by UN officials is creating doubts on whether international aid is actually reaching those who need it most.
It is said that 6.5 million of the displaced are still inside Syria, while 2.7 million have fled to nearby countries. Syrians also are finding health care hard to obtain. Fifty per cent of hospitals are said to be out of service and 70 per cent have been damaged.
In such a situation, it is shocking that seven weeks after UN aid trucks crossed from Turkey into Syria for the first time, aid workers in the southern Turkish humanitarian hub of Gaziantep still have no idea exactly where the supplies ended up.
The convoy of 78 trucks taking food, bedding and medicine to Syria's mainly Kurdish Hasakah province was seen as a test of the willingness of Syria's authorities and rebels to abide by a UN resolution urging them to let aid across front lines and borders by the most direct routes.
But no distribution lists have been made available for this or any other UN delivery, according to aid workers in Gaziantep. This hampers the efforts of charities trying to address the world's biggest humanitarian crisis.
NGOs complain that despite multiple requests, the United Nations has so far failed to share its methodology in identifying those most in need and monitoring where its aid goes after delivery. Often it does not even disclose what its food aid includes. That makes effective coordination among Syrian and international agencies operating out of Turkey unnecessarily complicated.
A UN resolution, adopted by the Security Council in February in a rare show of unanimity on Syria, sought to boost humanitarian access and threatened to take "further steps" if Syria's government and the rebels failed to comply. But the lack of transparency around UN deliveries makes that hard to monitor.
It may be recalled that the United Nations recently rebuked donors for not doing enough to help millions of Syrian refugees in the region as well as host countries, saying massive aid is needed. The world body, which is otherwise doing a tremendous job, should roll up its sleeves and boost co-ordination efforts so that aid from donors will reach the right people at the right time.
Air pollution poses
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) warning that many of the world’s cities are “enveloped in dirty air” that is dangerous to breathe need to be taken seriously and the authorities concerned should initiate remedial action.
When an internationally reputed organisation says that urban dwellers are being exposed to excessive air pollution and are at a risk of respiratory diseases and other long-term health problems, there is need for introspection.
Air quality in most urban areas worldwide that monitor outdoor air pollution fails to meet WHO safety guidelines, putting people at additional of serious health problems, the agency has noted while issuing its 2014 urban ambient air quality database.
The WHO database covers 1,600 cities across 91 countries – 500 more cities than the previous database (2011), revealing that more cities worldwide are monitoring outdoor air quality, reflecting growing recognition of air pollution’s health risks.
Only 12 per cent of the people living in cities reporting on air quality reside in cities where that air quality complied with WHO guideline levels. About half of the urban population being monitored is exposed to air pollution that is at least 2.5 times higher than the levels WHO recommends - putting those people at additional risk of serious, long-term health problems.
The latest WHO report, however, has kicked up a dust in India with the country’s air monitoring centre dismissing data that showed New Delhi's air as the dirtiest worldwide.
The study showed Delhi had an annual average concentration of airborne small particles of less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, known as PM 2.5, of 153. This was almost three times as high as the reading for Beijing of 56 despite the Chinese capital's reputation for smog, and 10 times that of London. Indian officials have dubbed the finding “biased and misleading.”
In most cities where there is data to compare the situation today with previous years, air pollution is getting worse. Many factors contribute to this, including reliance on fossil fuels such as coal-fired power plants, dependence on private transport motor vehicles and the use of biomass for cooking.
Some cities, however, are making notable improvements, demonstrating that air quality can be improved by implementing policy measures such as banning the use of coal for “space heating” in buildings, using clean fuels for electricity production and improving efficiency of motor vehicle engines.
Cities like Copenhagen and Bogotà have improved air quality by prioritising dedicated networks of urban public transport, walking and cycling. There is a lesson for others to learn here.
Israel should accept
Pope’s peace message
Pope Francis’ peace initiative in the Middle East as part of his ongoing visit to the region is a noble gesture that deserves support from all sides, but the question remains whether Israel will co-operate. Going by past experience, Israel has effectively scuttled all such peace efforts earlier.
Pope Francis had flown by helicopter to Bethlehem from Jordan, where he started his tour on Saturday, becoming the first pontiff to travel directly to the West Bank rather than enter via Israel. This is seen as a decisive nod for Palestinian statehood aspirations.
Israel’s games are getting exposed. It had repeatedly blamed the Palestinian president for the failure of the latest peace talks, but standing alongside Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis pointedly referred to him as "a man of peace and a peacemaker."
It is not just that. Pope Francis also made a surprise stop at the massive wall the international community sees as a symbol of Israeli oppression and barrier to peace.
Pope Francis has delighted his Palestinian hosts by referring to the "state of Palestine," giving support for their bid for full statehood recognition in the face of a crippled peace process and inviting the Palestinian president to the Vatican.
Israel’s actions on the ground are a matter of concern. International rights groups have heavily criticised the treatment of Palestinian youngsters by Israel's military, with a report this month finding increasing numbers of arrested minors are placed in solitary confinement.
A 2013 Unicef report found Israel was the only country in the world to systematically try children in military courts, often after being aggressively awakened in the night by armed soldiers, blindfolded and deprived of sleep. The vast majority of arrests are for throwing stones.
It is known that Israel’s settlement expansions led to the breakdown last month of US-mediated peace talks. Watchdog group Peace Now had recently stated that Israel increased settlement work four-fold during the latest round of peace talks, pushing forward with construction of nearly 14,000 new homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
At the spot where the Pope Francis stood and prayed near the separation wall, someone had sprayed in paint the words "Free Palestine." The writing on the wall is clear. Israel has to mend its ways. The occupation has to, and will, end. Israel should take the honorable Papal message for peace in the region seriously and end its atrocities immediately.
The abduction of over 200 girls from a boarding school in the northeast Nigerian town of Chibok in mid-April by Boko Haram militants and the failure to rescue the victims as yet is a matter of deep concern for the international community.
Concerns have been mounting about the girls’ fate after Boko Haram chief Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility, saying his group was holding the schoolgirls as "slaves" and threatening to "sell them in the market."
Rattled by the abductions, several world leaders have called for intensified efforts to ensure the peaceful return of the victims. “Bring our girl back,” are the words reverberating from across the globe.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voiced his deep concern during a phone call with the country’s President, Goodluck Jonathan, who has accepted the former’s offer to send a high-level envoy to discuss how the world body can support the government tackle internal challenges.
Jonathan’s government stands accused of being slow to mount rescue operations. In fact, human rights group Amnesty International has stated that Nigeria's military had advance warning of the April 14 attack by Boko Haram that led to the kidnapping but failed to take immediate action.
US President Barack Obama has described the kidnapping as "heartbreaking" and "outrageous" even as Washington deployed military experts in the hunt for the children.
US officials have voiced fears that the girls, aged between 16 and 18, have already been smuggled into neighbouring countries, such as Chad and Cameroon. The governments of both denied the girls were in their countries.
President Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the northeast a year ago, ordering extra troops, but security officials say the armed forces remain overstretched. Perhaps as few as 25,000 service-ready troops face an insurgency over a wide area in the northeast, communal violence across north and central Nigeria and rampant oil theft in the south, as well as commitments to peacekeeping missions.
Two decades ago Nigeria's military was seen as a force for stability across West Africa. Now it struggles to keep security within its own borders. A lack of investment in training and failure to maintain equipment has damaged Nigeria's armed services.
The entire world shares the anguish of the families of the girls and the people of Nigeria at this traumatic time. Ideological differences should never be a reason for such deplorable action against innocent girls. Attacks on schools, students and teachers are prohibited under international humanitarian law and the perpetrators should be held accountable.
Acid test for Ukraine’s
Ukrainians have rallied overwhelmingly behind billionaire owner of chocolate factories and political veteran Petro Poroshenko in the elections, but the burly 48-year-old faces a barrage of challenges in healing the bleeding nation.
The country is on the brink of bankruptcy and a UN official warned recently that the southern and eastern regions are awash in weapons and are a scene of numerous cases of illegal detentions and abductions.
Monday's rapid military response to separatists who seized the airport in Donetsk appears to be a defiant answer to Moscow, which has claimed it is ready for dialogue with Poroshenko, but the troubles seem far from over for Ukrainians.
Preliminary results with about half of votes counted gave Poroshenko 53.7 per cent of the vote - towering over a field of 21 candidates with enough support to avert a run-off. His closest challenger, former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, secured just 13.1 per cent and made clear she would concede. Official results are likely to be announced by June 5.
‘Chocolate King’ Poroshenko, known for his pragmatism, supports building strong ties with Europe but also has stressed the importance of mending relations with Moscow.
He stated his first step as president would be to visit the Donbass eastern industrial region, where pro-Russia separatists have seized government buildings, declared independence and battled government troops in weeks of fighting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who last month described eastern Ukraine as "New Russia," has made more accommodating noises in recent days. He promised at the weekend that Moscow would respect the will of Ukrainians, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated that promise saying Russia was ready for dialogue with Poroshenko.
Western countries put little faith in Putin's promises. He has repeatedly announced he would pull troops from the frontier without doing so. They dismiss Russia's denials that it has aided the rebels, whose Donetsk force is led by a Muscovite the European Union describes as a Russian military intelligence officer.
Poroshenko's sweeping margin of victory gives him a firm mandate that makes it harder for Moscow to dismiss him as illegitimate, as it did in the case of the interim leaders he will replace.
Novertheless, Russia could still use the gaps in the election in the east to challenge its legitimacy.It remains to be seen how Poroshenko will successfully steer Ukraine westward, with Russia - Ukraine's major market and vital energy supplier - looking determined to maintain a hold over the second most populous ex-Soviet republic.