Monday, July 28, 2014

Millions begin Eid celebrations in UAE

(My report in The Gulf Today)
SHARJAH: It was a moment that millions of Muslims in the UAE were eagerly awaiting. Seconds after the UAE Moonsighting committee announced that Eid Al Fitr will start on Monday, ecstatic people thronged the streets, hugged each other and indulged in last-minute shopping. 
“Eid Mubarak” greetings filled the air, adding exuberance to the festive mood.
The UAE Moonsighting Committee earlier met on Sunday in Abu Dhabi after Magreb prayers.
Several residents have already decked up their homes. Many could be seen queuing outside sweet shops to buy delicacies for family and visitors. 
“I am expecting a large number of guests at home. I wanted to pick up the sweets before it runs out,” said a gleeful Nedal Maudi, a Sharjah resident, who was spotted at a popular sweet joint. 
“Scorching sun made fasting a huge challenge this year. I am relieved and happy that I managed to complete the month-long fast,” said Janaan Ahmad, a student. 
Several colourful events have been lined up across the emirates on the Eid days. The prime attraction is likely to be firework displays.
Eid Al Fitr, also called the festival of fast-breaking, marks the end of the holiest month in the Islamic Calendar and the beginning of the lunar month Shawwal.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Recent Editorials

Here are some of my recent Editorials in The Gulf Today (Posted for my records)

Dazzling Dubai draws
global attention again
UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum has repeatedly demonstrated that ambition has no limits and that the word “impossible” is not in his dictionary. The result is showing and Dubai is now recognised internationally as a city of “world firsts.”
The launch of the first temperature-controlled city, Mall of the World, which will attract over 180 million visitors annually, has turned the global spotlight on Dubai again.
It calls for immense courage and stupendous enterprise to embark on such a mindboggling project, but as Sheikh Mohammed once remarked, “The future does not wait for those who hesitate.”
Even visualising the concept could leave one amazed. Imagine the largest indoor theme park in the world where tourists will be able to enjoy a weeklong stay without the need to leave the city or use a car.
The 7km long promenades connecting all facilities will be covered during the summer and open during the winter, ensuring pleasant temperatures throughout the year.
Occupying an area of 48 million sq. ft., the project will also house the largest shopping mall in the world with an area of 8 million sq. ft., which will take the form of an extended retail street network, different to the typical shopping mall concept currently available in Dubai.
Once completed, the City is projected to become a year-round destination, welcoming around 180 million visitors annually.
Interestingly, the new project, developed by Dubai Holding, will introduce a novel concept of an integrated pedestrian city connected to the mall and offering a wide range of leisure, retail, cultural, wellness, recreation and hospitality options under one roof.
No wonder, Dubai has remained a dream destination for tourists. Last year, Dubai won the bid to host Expo 2020, a six-month global exhibition that is expected to attract 25 million visitors. Expo-related infrastructure development and operations will cost around Dhs32.39 billion.
Under Dubai’s 2020 vision, the number of visitors in the emirate is projected to double from 10 million in 2012 to 20 million by 2020. In order to accommodate the visitors, the number of hotels in Dubai is expected to double.
“Our vision is clear, infrastructure is ready and confidence in our human resources is high,” once mentioned Sheikh Mohammed. That should serve as a perfect inspiration for everyone to work as one team to achieve the goal, with positive energy, strong determination and the belief that anything is possible.

Refugees deserve
better treatment
Australia would do well to add a bit of compassion in its handling of asylum seekers. It is a matter of deep concern that the Australian authorities this week returned to Sri Lanka 41 people seeking asylum, apparently without adequate screening of their protection claims and needs.
The migrants aboard a boat that was controversially turned back mid-sea say they were abused, given little food and treated "worse than dogs." One migrant said the group was denied medication, while another claimed they were supplied food past their expiry date.
As per norms, every case should be individually examined on its own merits along with procedural safeguards and due process guarantees. Any returns, even from the high seas or in the territorial seas of other States, must be carried out in accordance with international law, under which handing back victims to their persecutor and collective expulsions are strictly prohibited.
The problem assumes serious significance, as there are also reports that a dozen mothers in an asylum-seekers’ camp attempted suicide so their children can be settled in Australia. According to                         The Sydney Morning Herald, the women tried to kill themselves this week after being told they would be taken from a detention centre on Christmas Island to Papua New Guinea or Nauru.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott insists that he will not be “morally blackmailed.” He told Channel Nine television: “I don't believe that people ought to be able to say to us, 'Unless you accept me as a permanent resident, I am going to commit self-harm'. I don't believe any Australian would want us to capitulate to moral blackmail.”
However, not all politicians in Australia agree with Abbott’s tough posture. Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten’s message to Abbott was sharp: "It is not good enough to wash your hands on the safety of human beings."
Greens party immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young also declared that she had spoken to people inside the Christmas Island camp and reports of attempted suicide were true.
It is not clear whether the Australian government has been given any assurances that the returnees will not face ill treatment upon their return to Sri Lanka, nor is it clear how the Australian government plans to monitor their treatment.
Repelling migrants after screening them as potential asylum-seekers at sea surely appears to be inadequate under international law. Asylum seekers arriving by boat should be processed in Australia under a reasonable Refugee Status Determination system.

Monks should preach
peace, not hatred
Continuing sectarian violence targeting Muslims have exposed deep religious tensions in Buddhist-majority Myanmar as the nation emerges from decades of military rule.
In detestable scenes that raise serious questions about the safety of ordinary citizens, around 300 Buddhists rode motorcycles around Myanmar’s second largest city of Mandalay on Friday shouting death threats. "We're going to kill all the Muslims," some shouted as they rode through the streets.
While police guarded the neighbourhood, it is shocking that they did not disarm the Buddhists who had been riding around the city, screaming threats. Many Muslims were forced to flee the area.
Buddhist-Muslim clashes have left at least 250 people dead and tens of thousands displaced since fighting first broke out in the western Rakhine state in 2012.
The latest unrest erupted after baseless accusations were spread on the Internet centred on a teashop, prompting a crowd of hundreds to gather near the business, hurling stones and damaging property of Muslims.
Prominent hardline cleric Wirathu, who is based in Mandalay, posted a link to online allegations against the teashop owners on his Facebook page just hours before the trouble started. He has since ramped up the tension with more baseless allegations against Muslims.
Just recently, a senior UN aid official said she had witnessed a level of human suffering never seen before in camps for some 140,000 stateless Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, displaced by Buddhist-Muslim violence sparked in 2012.
Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Kyung-Wha Kang travelled to the Rakhine and Kachin states, where more than 100,000 people have been displaced since fighting between ethnic minority insurgents and the government erupted in June 2011, ending a 17-year ceasefire.
“In Rakhine, I witnessed a level of human suffering in IDP (internally displaced person) camps that I have personally never seen before, with men, women, and children living in appalling conditions with severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, both in camps and isolated villages,” the UN official noted.
While Mandalay has a sizeable Muslim minority and also plays host to a group of nationalist Buddhist monks accused of stoking tension, it has not suffered religious unrest on this scale before.
Baseless rumours and hate speech against Muslims are spread via social media, compounding the problem.
The strife threatens to undermine political reforms initiated by the government of President Thein Sein. The authorities need to act before the situation gets out of control. Violence has no place in a sane society. 

Iraqis suffer as
leaders squabble
It is highly unfortunate that Iraq's parliament has again failed to break the political deadlock that is holding up the formation of a new government.
With politics in Baghdad paralysed and Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki continuing in a caretaker role, militants are gaining ground raising fears that violence will continue to haunt the distressed country for more time.
What is more disappointing is that the latest stalemate has come despite the announcement late on Saturday of an agreement among Sunni Arab lawmakers on a candidate for speaker, a post traditionally held by the minority group that must be filled before the government formation process can progress.
A statement from parliament's United for Change Sunni grouping said Dr Salim Al Juburi had been selected, but went on to pledge not to accept Maliki for a third term.
Former parliament speaker Osama Al Nujaifi called for a vote on Juburi, but acting parliament speaker Mahdi Hafez rejected this, saying not all blocs were in agreement, despite there being more than enough MPs present to hold a vote.
Disunity among Iraqi politicians is costing the country dear. Sunday's session was the second time parliament has completely failed to make progress, with a July 1 meeting breaking down when MPs traded barbs and enough failed to return after a break that the legislature was without a quorum.
On the ground, United Nations statistics present a grim scenario. At least 2,417 people were killed in Iraq in June 2014 alone, the majority of them civilians. In addition, a total of 2,287 people were injured in attacks in June.
In fact, 2013 turned out to be Iraq's deadliest since violence began to ease in 2008. At least 8,868 people were killed in militant attacks or other acts of violence.
The death toll has significantly increased since the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis/Isil) started capturing cities in the north of the country in early June.
Top United Nations officials have rightly warned that failing to move forward on electing a new speaker, a new president and a new government risks plunging the country into more chaos.
Iraqi leaders have no choice but to overcome their deep divisions and move quickly to form a new government that can unite the country and confront the surging militant threat.
The present political impasse will only serve the interests of those who seek to divide the people of Iraq and destroy their chances for peace and prosperity.

At last, Merkel sends
tough message to US
Berlin's expulsion of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) station chief in the latest spy row with the United States is absolutely justified. In fact, it was long overdue.
The spying scandal has chilled relations with Washington to levels not seen since Chancellor Angela Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schroeder opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The decision to order the CIA representative out came after dramatic reports of US espionage activity in Germany. Berlin earlier said it had discovered a suspected US spy in the Defence Ministry.
That came just days after a German foreign intelligence worker was arrested on suspicion of being a CIA informant and admitted passing documents to a US contact.
The two suspected spy cases have fuelled anger in Germany especially after the  revelations last year from fugitive intelligence contractor Edward Snowden of widespread NSA surveillance, including on Merkel's mobile phone.
Surveillance is a sensitive issue in Germany, where the memory of the Nazi's Gestapo secret police and Communist East Germany's Stasi means the right to privacy is treasured.
It is obvious that public outrage at the revelations put pressure on Merkel to take action against the United States.
Germany's biggest selling newspaper,              Bild, said Merkel  ordered German secret services to reduce cooperation with US counterparts to a minimum, while the                         Sueddeutche Zeitung  called the expulsion "an unprecedented act of protest against American arrogance."
In a typical case of the pot calling the kettle black, US secretary of state John Kerry had recently condemned Chinese cyber-espionage in unusually strong terms while wrapping up high-level meetings in Beijing, as reports surfaced that Chinese hackers breached the US Office of Personnel Management earlier this year.
"Instances of cyber theft have harmed our business and threatened our nation's competitiveness. The loss of intellectual property through cyber (spying) has a chilling effect on innovation and investment,” Kerry had remarked.
After the Snowden revelations, Berlin demanded that Washington agree to a "no-spy agreement," but the US remained adamant and refused to make such a commitment.
Relationship between any two countries, just like between individuals, is based on trust. When there is a breach from one side, it is in order that the other party takes corrective measures to protect itself from being dubbed a mere poodle.
Germany and the US are close allies working together in crisis-hit countries like Afghanistan and Ukraine. American snooping activities tantamount to backstabbing.  In that sense, Germany’s expulsion move is unquestionably appropriate.

Crashing roofs,
crushing lives
Building collapses are increasingly common in India. Among the typical reasons cited are illegal space additions, use of substandard material or corruption.
It is astounding that the authorities have failed to initiate serious remedial action to rein in some unscrupulous builders, despite heavy loss of lives in such incidents.
Several have died in two building collapses in different cities over the weekend. It is feared that more persons could still be trapped under the mass of concrete, steel and sand, after a 12-storey building under construction collapsed in heavy rain in Chennai on Saturday.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa has stated that the building crashed due to a structural defect. The builder had apparently violated norms.
Also during the weekend, a 50-year-old dilapidated four-storeyed building came crashing in a congested area in Delhi claiming several lives. It was stated that poor quality material used to build the house weakened its base and it collapsed due to ongoing construction on an adjacent plot.
In April last year, 74 people were killed when an eight-storey building being constructed illegally in the Mumbai suburb of Thane caved in. It was the worst building collapse in the country in decades.
The list is endless. In January, a building under construction collapsed in the western state of Goa, killing at least 14 people.
Interestingly, Legislator Pratap Sarnaik had obtained information, in accordance with the Right to Information Act, about the scope of the construction of illegal buildings in the Thane district of Maharashtra.
The Hindu reported, “For the nine divisions under the corporation last year, 505 illegal buildings were demolished, there was action against 829 (which does not mean they were demolished), and in December, 2012 alone, 104 illegal constructions were detected.”
A lack of housing, coupled with high population growth, has resulted in individuals living in low-cost unauthorised buildings or huts on illegal land, especially in cities like Mumbai.
Owing to skyrocketing real estate prices, millions are left without a proper roof across the country. Thousands are even forced to sleep on the pavements.
Repeated building collapses highlight the dire need for adequate safety procedures. Structural permits should be issued only after proper inspection.
Corruption is also a huge problem that allows unscrupulous builders to get clearance for buildings that do not follow the most basic norms.
The new political leaders have promised happy days for the people. Nothing would make millions of poor Indians happier than an affordable, safe roof.

A soul-searching
time for the Press
The acquittal of Rebekah Brooks, former boss of Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper arm, by the Old Bailey court from charges that she orchestrated a campaign to hack into phones and bribe officials, brings the “trial of the century,” prompted by a dirty media scandal, to a dramatic end.
The court has declared Andy Coulson, Brooks’ former lover and Prime Minister David Cameron's ex-media chief, guilty of conspiring to intercept messages to break news about royalty, celebrities and victims of crime in the case that has shaken the country’s political establishment
The conviction in one of the most expensive criminal trials in British legal history forced Cameron to apologise for hiring Coulson in 2007 when the Conservative leader gave him a "second chance" after he had already quit one of Murdoch's newspapers as the hacking scandal brewed.
The nearly eight-month trial was triggered by revelations that for years the                News of the World used illegal eavesdropping to get stories, listening in on the voicemails of celebrities, politicians and even crime victims.
Three other defendants — Brooks’ husband Charles, her former secretary Cheryl Carter and News International security chief Mark Hanna — were acquitted of perverting the course of justice by attempting to hide evidence from police.                      Former News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner was found not guilty of phone hacking.
At the height of the scandal, billions of dollars were wiped from Murdoch’s company's market value and politicians who once courted his support lined up to denounce his behaviour. He was called before parliament to answer questions and forced to drop a planned $12 billion buyout of pay-TV group BSkyB.
He later split his company in half to appease investors who wanted the newspapers held in a separate entity from the rest of the business.  News Corp said in a statement it had changed the way it did business since the revelations.
Murdoch was forced to shut down the                         News of the World in disgrace amid a boycott by advertisers just over three years ago after it emerged that the paper had hacked the voicemails of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
The verdicts have serious implications. The decision to wilfully ignore multiple warnings against hiring Andy Coulson will continue to haunt Cameron. The acquittal of Rebekah Brooks is a perfect indication that there is no need for draconian laws to curb the freedom of the press. As Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela once noted, "A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy.”

Friday, July 4, 2014

Secrets of a ‘master chef’

“It’s very simple,” started my teacher-wife before leaving for school. 
“Heat oil with mustard and curry leaves. Fry chopped onion and tomatoes with salt. Add rice. That is it.”
I did not know cooking was so easy.
When she returned in the evening, the tomato rice was hailed as “yummy” and I was crowned “Master Chef.”
I did not realise then that I had ignored a repeated warning by my boss: “You do once at home, you do it forever.”
That one-day adventure encouraged my wife to leave the cooking department with me on most days.
The latest “easiest” recipe she suggested was for “Lemon rice.”
“Heat oil with red chilli, mustard, curry leaves and peanuts. Include salt and turmeric powder. Add cooked rice and squeeze lemon. Khalaas. So simple!”
Late in the evening, she was all praise for the “delicious lemon rice.”
It better be delicious as the “readymade mix” that I had bought without her knowledge was expensive.
Now, do not let her know this or I will have to visit your home for dinner.