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Two people in the cockpit solves little

29 March 2015

Calling for a two-person requirement in the cockpit is certainly not the answer to the GermanWings tragedy. At best it is the reaction of governing bodies and airlines who want to appear to be "doing something" and to appease the media.

A longer term response will need to address mental health issues in an industry in which such issues are stigmatised.

According to the Aviation Safety Network, since September 11, 2001, only two incidents of commercial flight suicide have been recorded. Considering that more than 2.5 billion people flew between 2010 and 2014, that is a lottery-winning low chance of encountering a similar tragedy.

The ability for a mentally ill person to destroy themselves and a multitude of innocent people is not reserved for the cockpit or indeed for an airliner. I do not hear the same demand for two drivers on every bus.

The new rules require cabin crew to "guard" the one pilot while the other goes to the bathroom or just for a stretch of his or her legs for a few minutes.

But there are no new rules for controlled rest. What happens 00000when one pilot checks out for up to 40min (officially) replete with eye shades, ear plugs and blanket. The other pilot is left to operate as a single crew and to do whatever he likes. One swing with a crash axe (there is one in the cockpit) while he sleeps and...well it does not bear thinking about and I am sure it will never happen. But it is why the new rules are pointless.

The avenues for dealing with mental health issues such as major depressive disorder are limited. Airlines are addressing fatigue but mental health still carries unjustified outcome anxiety. A pilot raising his or her hand about mental health may mistakenly fear they will never be allowed to fly again. The ability to fly is a livelihood; failing a medical is essentially becoming unemployable.

There needs to be a way for pilots to take time out when they need to recover from stress, trauma, exhaustion, health concerns so that they may recover and fly again. We need to remove the fear of acknowledging the issues that can be faced by anyone in any profession.

It is certain that we will all encounter mental health issues in our lives, if not directly then through someone close to us. It's about time to confront and manage mental health in the aviation industry.

Fatique issues and stress over working conditions all contribute to health concerns - this Guardian article is thoughtful although the issue that it raise extend beyond the LCCs and are very relevant to the ME airlines with long flying hours and extensive night flying: Alps tragedy exposes relentless pressures faced by commercial pilots

No fatalities in Air Canada crash at Halifax

29 March 2015

Dear Air Canada - I think we need to call this a crash not an incident. The plane did not leave the runway after landing. It came down well short of the runway. Weather conditions were miserable; winds were strong. The good news is that everyone got out with just some minor injuries.

Which only goes to show - like the Asiana 777 at SFO - just how strong modern airliners are.

The Air Canada Airbus A320-200, registration C-FTJP performing flight AC-624 on Mar 28th from Toronto,ON to Halifax,NS (Canada) with 133 passengers and 5 crew, was on approach to Halifax's runway 05 at about 00:07L (03:07Z) when the aircraft touched down short of and below the runway threshold, clipped a powerline and approach light about 250 meters short of the runway, climbed the embankment up to the runway level and came to a stop past the threshold of the runway near taxiway B about 300 meters down the runway.

The aircraft was evacuated. 23 people received injuries and were taken to a hospital, the aircraft sustained substantial damage (collapsed gear, engine separated, wing damage, horizontal stabilizer damage).

Full marks to the cabin crew here.

The aircraft had been holding west of Halifax prior to commencing the approach waiting for weather (visibility) to improve.

The airline confirmed the aircraft suffered a runway excursion on landing in Halifax, 23 passengers and crew were taken to hospitals, 18 of them could be discharged from hospital in the meantime. In reality the airplane barely made a runway incursion.

The Canadian TSB announced they have dispatched a team of investigators to Halifax and opened an investigation into the accident.




GermanWings - final moments

19 March 2015

German tabloid newspaper Bild am Sonntag has released what is claims is a summary of the timeline from downed Germanwings Flight 9525.

The timeline is based on the data recorded on one of the "black boxes" recovered from the wreckage. A transcript of the cockpit voice recording has not been released, and Bild cites sources close to the investigation for the information. The timeline provides one of the most detailed descriptions of the plane's final moments:

According to Bild:

• There are 1.5 hours of sound on the voice recorder.

• The flight took off 20 minutes late, and Capt. Patrick Sondenheimer apologizes for the delay and says they will try and make up for it in the air.

• Even before takeoff, the captain tells co-pilot Andreas Lubitz that he didn't manage to go to the bathroom in Barcelona. Lubitz tells him he can go anytime.

• The plane reaches its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet at 10:27 am. local time.

• The captain asks the co-pilot to prepare the landing.

• After the check, Lubitz repeats to the captain, "You can go now." There is the sound of a seat moving backward. After that, the captain is heard saying, "You can take over."

• At 10:29 a.m., air traffic radar detects that the plane is beginning to descend.

• At 10:32 a.m., air traffic controllers contact the plane and receive no answer. Almost at the same time an alarm goes off in the cockpit saying "sink rate."

• Shortly after there is a loud bang on the door. The pilot can be heard screaming, "For God's sake, open the door." Passengers can be heard screaming in the background.

• At 10:35 a.m., loud metallic bangs can be heard as though someone is trying to knock down the door. The plane is at about 23,000 feet.


• Ninety seconds later, another alarm goes off: "Terrain -- pull up!" The plane is at about 16,400 feet. The captain is heard screaming, "Open the damn door."

• At 10:38 a.m., the plane is descending toward the French Alps, and the co-pilot can be heard breathing. The plane is at about 13,100 feet.

• At 10:40 a.m., it sounds like the plane's right wing scrapes a mountaintop, then screams can be heard one more time. Those are the last sounds on the voice recorder.

Terrifying.

Is an Arabian war inevitable?

27 March 2015

Up front disclaimer - I cannot answer the question but it is a genuine and real concern pitting Saudi Arabia and its allies against Iran and its allies.

Last Thursday Saudi Arabia and allies launched air strikes in Yemen to stop the advance of the Iran-allied Houthi militia towards President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi's southern refuge of Aden.

It is called Operation Decisive Storm. No objectives have been stated. Though Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, said that the military campaign against Shia Houthi militias in Yemen, which has been led by Saudi Arabia, aimed to “preserve Yemen’s unity and the peace of its territories”.

Saudi Ambassador to Washington Adel al-Jubeir said a coalition of more than 10 countries had joined the military campaign to try to protect Hadi's government. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar signed a joint statement with Saudi Arabia announcing the military action, leaving Oman as the only member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) not to join the coalition.

Egypt, Jordan and Sudan said their forces were involved in the operation. Pakistan said it was considering a request from Saudi Arabia to send ground forces.

Morocco declared its support for the Saudi-led operation, but did not confirm or deny earlier reports by Gulf broadcaster al-Arabiya that it had sent fighter jets.

The White House said the United States would give logistical and intelligence support. Turkey also declared its support.

Iran demanded an immediate halt to military action, while China expressed concern and called for dialogue. For once the Chinese appear to be the vice of reason.

Saudi Arabia leads the coalition and has committed 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers and some naval units.

Barack Obama has said the US shares a “collective goal” with its regional ally to see stability in Yemen, where the Houthis have been tightening their grip since the new year.

He also offered support to King Salman, as it emerged that US military forces had rescued two Saudi pilots forced to eject from their fighter jet in the region on Thursday.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has said negotiations were the only way to prevent a long-term conflict in Yemen.

Yemen is of course strategically important as its coastline controls access to the Suez Canal.

But the fighting in Yemen appears to be more of a Sunni against Shiite proxy war. The intervention is an attempt to curb Iran's growing influence in the Arab world, as well as to save the presidency of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Both will be difficult tasks.

While other leaders at the summit made veiled references to Tehran, Yemen's President Hadi - who just days ago was in hiding - was blunt. He described the Shia Houthi rebels who are trying to topple him as "Iranian stooges".

Yemen is now the backdrop for a larger conflict which already looks like a proxy war between Sunni states - especially regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia - and Iran. What's unclear is how far Arab leaders are prepared to take this conflict, or how much it may escalate.

And in the middle of Iran and Yemen - and with its own large Iranian population - sits Dubai. It may be that there are no good guys. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, foreign military intervention only makes matters worse

Thai airlines are a "significant safety concern

27 March 2015

Anyone who follows this site will know that the lack of regulations and controls over the endless stream of poorly financed Thai airlines has long been a concern.

Now, Thailand’s airlines are facing bans on new international flights and more inspections after the International Civil Aviation Organization flagged significant concerns about the country’s aviation safety.

The designation of Thailand as a “significant safety concern” has not been announced publicly by the aviation group, a United Nations agency, but governments were informed last week.

The ICAO raised questions about Thailand’s air-safety procedures. “The audit revealed some safety concerns, primarily relating to air operator certification procedures,” Anthony Philbin, a spokesman for Montreal-based ICAO, said Friday by e-mail, while declining to give details. The assessment was conducted in Thailand from Jan. 19 to Jan. 30, Philbin said.

Thai officials shared their plan for corrective action with ICAO on March 2, and the agency is working with Thai aviation regulators on resolving the issues, Philbin said.

Japan has blocked new flights from Thailand since the decision, and South Korea is considering similar measures, officials said. Existing flights are not affected.

Among the airlines forced to cancel flights are the low-cost carriers Thai AirAsia X, NokScoot and Asia Atlantic Airline, Thailand’s Department of Civil Aviation said in a statement. The flagship carrier, Thai Airways, is also affected.

Jarumporn Chotikasathein, the president of Thai Airways, said the airline would have to cancel “about five” charter flights planned for the April holiday schedule. He said his airline and other Thai carriers would also undergo increased inspections by regulators from other countries as a result of the group’s designation.

The Thai ministry did not give details of the group’s concerns or recommendations, but said it planned to inform countries about the status of Thailand’s aviation safety and “the solutions to fix the faults that were found in the inspection as soon as possible.”

As usual the government response appears to be that the foreigners do not understand us.

Thailand was audited by the ICAO group in January; its previous assessment was in 2005. Industry executives said the department was able to meet only 21 out of 100 requirements imposed by the ICAO.

The department has been struggling to meet ICAO compliance under a 90-day grace period as the global aviation community has begun to cast a suspicious eye towards Thailand, another executive said.

An ICAO downgrade could lead US and EU aviation safety authorities to review Thailand's aviation safety standards,

Audits assess a country’s ability to ensure aviation safety in areas like staff licensing and training, airworthiness, and accident investigation, according to a report by Watson Farley & Williams, an international law firm with a commercial transportation practice.

The Civil Aviation Bureau of Japan informed its Thai counterpart by email this week that it would not allow new charter flights operated by carriers registered in Thailand to fly to Japanese airports. Noriaki Umezawa, a spokesman for the bureau, said the temporary measure was issued because of concerns that the airlines may not meet international safety standards.

The Japanese ban covers any “change of aviation services,” the Thai civil aviation department said, and also bars airlines from changing the type of aircraft normally used on scheduled routes.

South Korea said it was considering a similar ban. Mr. Kwak, the transportation official, said it was highly unlikely that new flights would be approved. NokScoot had been planning to start flights to Seoul’s main airport, Incheon, in May. Mr. Kwak said flights currently operating between Thailand and South Korea would not be affected.


The downing of GermanWings 4U 9525

26 March 2015

 Flight 4U 9525 crashed on Tuesday near Digne-les-Bains in the French Alps. The airliner had just reached its cruising altitude and was over the Alps flying from Barcelona to Dusseldorf. There was no mayday call from the flight.

It was the New York Times that broke the big story last night. Suggesting that one pilot had left the cockpit and been locked out and kept out.

The story escalated quickly and sensationally today. 

The Marseille prosecutor was blunt. The only conclusion he could reach was that the co-pilot of the Germanwings flight, Andreas Lubitz, had crashed the plane deliberately.

"The co-pilot is alone at the controls," prosecutor Brice Robin said, drawing on information gathered from the black box recorder. "He voluntarily refused to open the door of the cockpit to the pilot and voluntarily began the descent of the plane."

Mr Robin said the 28-year-old had a "deliberate desire to destroy this plane. He ... refused to open the door of the cockpit to the pilot and deliberately began the descent of the plane."

There were 149 other passengers and crew on board that airplane. What Mr Lubitz did was not unthinkable; it is however extraordinarily rare.

The captain had left the cockpit - presumably for a bathroom break. The captain knocked on the door but there was no answer, he hit the door stronger, and no answer. There was never an answer.

The chief executive of Lufthansa has said there were no indications of abnormal behaviour in Lubitz and that there is "no system in the world" that could have predicted and prevented his actions.

"He was 100 percent fit to fly. There was no particular thing to note or to watch out for (in him)."

"We choose our staff very strictly. the choice of staff is very strict - we not only take into account their technical knowledge but also the pyschological aspect of our staff."

He said the psychological tests carried out on their pilots by a specialised German training centre were regarded as among the best in the world.

This may come back to haunt him as it has become clear that the co-pilot was undergoing medical treatment and in fact had a sick note for the day of the fated flight that he tore up.

There have been complaints  mainly from within the industry that the prosecutor released too much information without confirming the facts This is nonsense. 150 people died. There is a criminal investigation and the public want answers. Not just what happened but why it happened.

The prosecutor was clear - to the point of bluntness - about what had happened - and the evidence from the CVR must be strong for him to be that conclusive. It would be career-wrecking for him (and many others) if he were wrong.

The prosecutor's findings were not media-hyped. What he told the press was itself sensational...in the worst way possible.

It was also telling that the airline has accepted that the crash resulted from the action of one of their pilots.

Some of the resulting speculation - mental illness, religion etc has been inappropriate and excessive. And that is the problem. The prosecutor was clear what happened. But everyone is now asking 'why' and that will take much longer to answer or may never be answered.

In all the comparisons and speculation most people have forgotten the almost identical crash of Mozambique Airlines - TM470 - 29 November 2013. The industry should have been taking action after that incident and did not. The appearance is that since it happened in Africa it gets ignored but if it happens to a blue-chip European airline the industry responds.

Bangkok’s Big Brother is watching you

25 March 2015 The Guardian

General Prayuth Chan-ocha is determined to make Thailand a happy place. He’s doing this by throttling civil liberties. Abigail Haworth charts the surreal rise of his despotic regime

Bangkok’s Lumpini Park is walking distance from the Italian bistro where Dream works as the head waitress. This afternoon, a cool Saturday in mid- January, the 32-year-old Thai has taken a couple of hours off to attend a festival in the park. The grass has only just grown back. It was scrubby and nicotine-hued for months last year after thousands of occupying protesters erected tents, noodle stalls and pop-up hair salons during efforts to topple the elected government. A military coup last May granted the protesters’ wishes. Now the junta is using the park to stage a five-day extravaganza, Discover Thainess 2015, to showcase how united and happy the country is under martial law.

The area has been transformed into a mini-Thailand. Different sections represent the five main regions, each crammed with colourful stalls selling local food and crafts. There are stages for cultural performances, and backdrops of idyllic beaches and lush rice paddies for photo sessions. (One stall sells nothing but selfie sticks.) In Dream’s home region, the North, people who are dressed as cheery peasants pose beside plastic water buffaloes. In the Central region, home to the capital, dancers in glittering costumes perform a graceful routine from the royal court.

Dream moved to Bangkok seven years ago from Nan province, close to the border with Laos. She earned her English nickname because she was always so aspirational. “My parents grew rice and vegetables for a living. There was too much poverty, too little food,” she says. “I did well at school and found work in hotels when I was 18. I wanted a better life.” Dressed for the festival in a smart black skirt and a high-necked blouse adorned with a cameo necklace, she is enjoying the lavish spectacle. She is also bemused. “It’s like 20 or 30 years ago. It’s not like Thailand today.”

Harking back to an idealised past, when irksome democracy was containable and everyone knew their place, is one of the festival’s aims. The event is ostensibly to promote tourism, but it’s also thudding domestic propaganda. The theme is based on the “12 core values of the Thai people” that coup leader and now prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha compiled after seizing power. The values include: “Love for the nation, religion and the monarchy”; “Preserving Thai customs and traditions” and “Discipline and respect for elders and the rule of law”. All Thai school-children are required to recite the 12 sayings daily and, to prove that feudal values can also be fun, the junta has issued downloadable stickers for Thai messaging apps.

There’s no greater way of showing contempt for the rule of law than by removing an elected government, however flawed, at gunpoint. But such inconsistencies don’t trouble Prayuth. The general justified the coup – Thailand’s 12th since absolute monarchy ended in 1932 – by claiming it was necessary to quash instability resulting from the country’s deep political divide. Thailand has been in a state of almost perpetual tumult for a decade. On one side are those who believe in civil society and democratic principles, including the devoted supporters of exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra and his populist party machine. On the other side are those loyal to the old ruling elite, an embedded alliance of the Thai monarchy, military and upper classes whose traditional power is being usurped.

After the coup, Prayuth suspended the constitution and restricted all basic rights. He vowed to “return happiness to the people” and create a system of “Thai-style democracy” through political reforms of the junta’s own design.

Earlier in the week, during his speech to launch the festival, Prayuth made it clear how high the stakes were for every citizen. Disagreeing with his path, he declared, was incompatible with the very nature of “Thainess”. “Whoever causes chaos to Thailand or disrupts peace and order, they should not be recognised as Thais, because Thais do not destroy each other,” the general told an audience of dignitaries gathered outside a shopping mall. “The charm of the Thai people is that they look lovely even when they do nothing, because they have smiles,” he added, without bothering to demonstrate his point.

Prayuth insists his only goal is national reconciliation. But Dream says his regime will make many Thais feel more excluded. As a transgender woman, she is a case in point. “Of course I am worried in case the army clamps down on people like me,” she tells me later in the evening, back at the homely Italian restaurant where she works. “I don’t fit into their ideal.” What upsets her most is that the junta’s pronouncements render her opinions worthless. “I’m proud of myself. I’ve worked hard to improve my life and I believe in equality and freedom for poor people. But now we are being told that if we don’t accept the army’s decisions, we are criminals.”

When General Prayuth does smile, which is not very often, he looks like a man suffering from heartburn. He probably is. The 61-year-old junta boss has repeatedly complained that he didn’t ask for the job of reforming democracy and that he is selflessly doing it for the nation. “My whole family cried tears when I told them I was going to do this task,” he told the Thai media, shortly before his hand-picked interim parliament appointed him as prime minister. A career soldier known as a hardline royalist, Prayuth had been due to retire last year and spend his salad days playing golf.

Still, his belief that his methods are the only righteous solution to Thailand’s problems is not in doubt. Neither is his faith in his own authority. As the number of coups indicates, the Thai army’s sanctioned role as political troubleshooter is long-standing. Prayuth looks painfully exasperated when Thai reporters gently query his reform plans. He told one journalist to “visit the ear doctor” and threw a banana skin at the head of a cameraman. Earlier this month he warned a press gathering that he could do much worse. “I was asked by a reporter: ‘What are the results of the government’s work?’ I almost punched the person who questioned me in the face.”

The warning was redundant. Since taking over, the junta, whose official name is the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has made full use of martial law to prosecute opponents, ban political activity and censor the media. More than 1,000 people, including academics, political bloggers, activists and politicians, have been detained or sent for “attitude adjustment” at military installations. There have been some allegations of torture. Prosecutions under the country’s strict lèse majesté laws, which protect the monarchy from insult, have also risen sharply. In its annual report in January, Human Rights Watch said military rule had sent human rights in Thailand into “a freefall”.

During the previous coup in 2006, the mood was comparatively less repressive. The move ousted Thaksin Shinawatra from office while he was on an overseas trip. The army rallied peacefully to return life to normal. Thaksin, a former telecoms tycoon who came to power in 2001, built a huge support base among mostly rural voters by being the first Thai leader to introduce policies that genuinely improved their lives, such as universal health care and microcredit loans. But he also grew increasingly despotic and corrupt as his power expanded, turning the urban elite’s distaste for him into outright loathing. Thaksin and his allies became synonymous with bad government. Tolerance for democracy was the main casualty.

This coup felt different from the start. In the years since 2006, grassroots supporters of Thaksin and his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who became prime minister in his absence in 2011, had become much more organised. Seeing their gains under threat, they clashed with the army and pro-establishment demonstrators numerous times to safeguard their votes. Thaksin-backed parties have won every election for the past 14 years. By last year, with Thailand’s long-ruling 87-year-old monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej in fragile health, and no viable opposition in parliament, the Bangkok powers were running out of time. They needed to crush support for the Shinawatra clan once and for all, and rig the constitution to keep elected leaders in check in future.

The generals’ failure to grasp that the Shinawatras are only a symbol of much wider demands for social change and equality is the central flaw in their plan. Anti-coup demonstrators were quick to latch on to dystopian symbolism in protest. Some people took part in “reading protests” by standing in public reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games films became a mark of resistance. The army was equally quick to crack down, hauling offenders off for “attitude adjustment” or worse. Life began to outdo art. After martial law outlawed political gatherings of more than five people, students at one university organised “sandwich parties” – sit-ins in the guise of innocently eating lunch. The idea spread. The army detained a number of people for “eating sandwiches with political intent” and warned the public this was now a criminal act. Recently, the junta arrested a man for staging a solo “walking protest” in Bangkok.

If such state-sponsored farce in one of southeast Asia’s most modern capitals suggests there is panic beneath the junta’s brute power, its desperate need for its actions to be seen in a positive light confirms it. It has toned down its “Happiness” campaign from the early days, when it held street parties to promote reconciliation, offering free haircuts, dancing by women in sexy camouflage gear and hot meals. Prayuth even penned a ballad, “Return Happiness to Thailand”, that was broadcast so often it became a tyranny of its own. (Musical ability seems to run in the family. Prayuth’s 20-something twin daughters enjoyed brief success a few years ago as a punk-lite pop duo called BADZ – a biographical detail now hard to find.)

But still, the doublethink pronouncements are relentless. “If people want to do [opinion] polls, they are free to do so,” said Prayuth at Government House last month. “But if the polls oppose the NCPO, that is not allowed,” he added. A few days later an “independent” poll was published giving the regime a public approval rating of more than 80%. Earlier the junta had outlined its position on media censorship in a similar fashion. After summoning editors from Thailand’s mainstream media to a meeting, the appointee in charge of media monitoring, Lt Gen Suchai Pongput, explained: “We do not limit media freedom, but freedom must be within limits.”

Cherry, a 27-year-old reporter and talk-show panellist at one of Bangkok’s independent TV stations, has discovered firsthand what this means in practical terms. I meet her at her office off a sprawling ringroad, but she has little work to do there, as she has been suspended by her bosses. “I posted a status update on my Facebook page, a kind of inspirational message for women, saying that we should speak out for what we believe even if we have to pay a high price,” says Cherry, who, to protect her TV company, can’t give her full Thai name. “Underneath I posted a photo of myself at a big anti-coup demonstration.” Her bosses saw the update and said they were taking her off air, at least for a while. “They told me they couldn’t trust me any more. They were worried I might criticise the military on live TV.”

The Thai media has never been entirely free; self-censorship about the monarchy and the Buddhist monkhood is practised across the board. But in those cases the parameters of what’s allowable are clearly defined (that is, nothing negative at all, although criticism of religion has begun to creep in). Cherry says the junta’s “request” that media outlets determine their own limits when reporting on the military government is more damaging. “When they don’t draw the line for you, when you have to draw it yourself, it results in paranoia and over-caution. It’s the worst kind of silencing.”

It’s also the most insidiously effective because it forces colleagues to police each other. The army closed down Cherry’s TV station for a month after the coup for “inappropriate reporting” and later gave it a yellow card, referee-style, to warn that it would be closed down again if it went too far. “Everyone at work is a nervous wreck.”

Cherry is the only daughter of upper middle-class parents who live in Bangkok’s suburbs and run a successful bakery business. Her parents are liberal, she says, but most of her relatives are firmly on the side of the coup. Cherry was studying global politics at the London School of Economics in 2006 when mass demonstrations first started up in her homeland. “That’s when I became really engaged. I believe passionately in democracy and civil society.” It’s a tragedy for Thailand, she says, that the nation is being excluded from debate about its future. “I talk politics with some of my friends, and they have very bright minds that are being wasted.”

So, of course, is her own. Two weeks after I meet her, her wrap-on-the-knuckles suspension is lifted. She’s allowed to return to her talk show as a panellist on the strict condition that she doesn’t say anything that the junta would regard as “un-Thai”.

Children’s Day in Thailand, in January, is the only day of the year that Government House opens to the public. Balloons are strung up around the lawns and youngsters can have guided tours of the seat of power. This year that turned out to be literal: it was all about the chair. Prayuth had recently received a new Baroque-style chair for his office. A leaflet was handed out about the making of the chair by master craftsmen. As the highlight of the day, children were allowed to sit in it to have their photos taken beside a cardboard cutout of its proud owner. He even wore a painless smile. Despite Prayuth’s protestations to the contrary, it seemed like he plans to sit in his new chair for quite a long time.

The general keeps changing his mind about the timetable for elections, saying that they could be any time between next year and three years away. One sharp-eyed Thai blogger noted that the ID cards of members of the National Legislative Assembly, the interim parliament appointed by Prayuth, are valid until 2020. Two recent small explosions of grenades and pipe bombs in Bangkok’s city centre, blamed on agitators, prompted Prayuth to confirm this month that martial law would stay in place until there was “total stability”. Meanwhile the troubled Thai economy is stagnating further and the country’s image abroad is looking shakier by the day.

Prayuth’s chair is not his only eccentricity. Apparently unschooled in public relations or political spin, he makes off-the-cuff remarks that provide endless light relief for Thailand’s political bloggers and tweeters. During one economic forum, he suggested that rubber farmers should “sell their product on Mars” to reduce their stockpile of rubber. He also told the poor to alleviate household debt “by stopping shopping”. In one of his weekly televised addresses, he said all residents of Bangkok should solve the problem of overgrowing water hyacinths in the river “by picking 10 or 20 plants each until they go extinct”. He signed off another broadcast with the words: “Love me just a little, but love me for a long time…” from a famous Thai song. Responding to suggestions by pro-coup pundits that he should be more statesman-like, he was adamant: “I won’t change my personality, because I am a person with multiple personalities.”

As with other interesting despots, none of this affects his ability to wield absolute power. But it does pose a problem for those who are in the business of poking fun at him to make serious political points. As Janya “Rosie” Wongsurawat says, it’s hard to produce satire when your targets are already beyond it in real life. Janya, 38, is the chief writer and director of Shallow News in Depth, an online TV show hosted by her younger brother Winyu “John” Wongsurawat and her husband, Nattapong Tiendee. The family trio founded the humorous news show six years ago to try to get more young people engaged in the country’s problems. Their audience has risen dramatically since the start of military rule. Around 250,000 viewers now watch each episode of their cleverly subversive take on post-coup antics.

The team covers complex political issues, wrapping them up in enough slapstick comedy, funny graphics and sarcasm to keep it all light on the surface. “In Thailand people don’t take clowns seriously, so we haven’t had any visits from the army yet,” says Janya, sitting in the studio they’ve recently created in the lobby of a disused Bangkok office building.

“Sarcasm is a useful weapon because it’s not common in Thai humour. People are not sure how to take it.” In the show Winyu, 29, is a cartoonish James Bond figure, while Nattapong, 39, is a shaman in a white robe and beads. Against the neon-hued set, the two sit at a desk and use props like fly swatters and rubber ducks to ham it up while they deliver serious verbal blows to Prayuth’s regime.

“This week our nation remains in a runaway state of absurdity and shows no sign of slowing down,” announces Winyu in one recent episode. The pair then name and shame many of the 220 members of the junta-appointed interim parliament who have no experience or qualifications for their posts except their ties to the army. “They are volunteering their incompetence in the service of our nation. Now, let’s move on to our absurd news…”

In another show they expose how the legislature is making surreptitious changes to the Minerals Act. Newly added clauses remove state liability for accidents and do away with environmental impact assessments. “So if a mine explodes, it’s the fault of the miners. Of course it is.” They also discuss how martial law is being used to quash environmental protests by local people about certain government projects and rush the projects through. “During the rule of phony governments like this, it’s a prime time for pushing crazy, unjust laws that would probably be much harder to pass during a legitimate government,” says Nattapong, brandishing his plastic fly swatter.

Winyu says it’s nerve-wracking every time they upload a new episode. “Some coup supporters are outraged. They tweet the link directly to the army with comments like: ‘You’re really letting them get away with this?’” But he says doing the show is also a form of therapy – for him, and hopefully for the viewers as well: “It’s a release, an outlet for the frustration of what’s happening.” Janya and Winyu are the offspring of a Thai politics professor, and their American mother is also an academic.

“We do have serious discussions about politics with the family, but we also have to joke about it as well,” says Janya, “otherwise it’s very lonely to be in this situation. The propaganda just keeps coming and coming. It’s really bad for your psyche.”

A month to THE DAY after the Discover Thainess festival in Lumpini Park, another event takes place not far across town. It’s Valentine’s Day, a muggy Saturday afternoon, and a group calling itself Resistant Citizen is staging a rare anti-coup protest in the middle of the Siam Square shopping district. Advertising the event in advance, the group of activists, students, academics and lawyers made no attempt to hide its illegal plans. The aim of coming out in public was to “break the atmosphere of fear created by military rule,” they announced.

Thirty protesters arrive in tuk-tuks bearing homemade ballot boxes, bunches of red roses and copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four. They plan to stage a mock election to mark the one-year anniversary of the general election in February 2014 called by the then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which was invalidated after the conservative opposition sabotaged the polls and in some cases attacked voters. “My beloved, stolen election” reads one sign. “One heart, one election” reads another. An air of inevitability hangs over the proceedings. Around 150 police officers have already put up barricades and formed a cordon around the plaza.

“This is a day of love for all Thais,” says one activist wearing a T-shirt with the slogan NO COUP and clutching a red rose. “We’ve come here to let it be known that we want freedom and social justice for everyone in our country.”

Standing back surveying the unfolding protest, police colonel Jarut Sarutthayaporn, the policeman in charge, says that holding demonstrations like this is counterproductive. The protesters are “interrupting the programme” and delaying democracy because elections will not be held until all dissent is eradicated.

Nevertheless, everyone lets the peaceful event play out. The activists put up the ballot boxes; the police dismantle them. People try to give speeches; the police stop those, too. Scuffles break out and four protesters are arrested, bundled off to the station in the same tuk-tuks they arrived in. (The four were later charged with holding an illegal political gathering and are currently being tried in a military court.)

When the event is over and everyone has gone home, shoppers continue to stream along the concrete pedestrian walkways that snake above the plaza. Beneath them at street level, the ground is strewn with trampled red roses.

From Fantasy land to Disneyland
(and add a second daily to Seattle)

25 March 2015

I did not see this coming as it really is more of a leisure destination that a business hub. But Tim Clark's comments suggest that EK has high hopes for this route.

But United Arab Emirates-based carrier Emirates will make Orlando its tenth destination in the United States, launching nonstop service to its Dubai hub on 1 September 2015.

Emirates will fly one daily round-trip flight on the route using 266-seat Boeing 777-200LR aircraft. The planes are configured with eight first-class "suites," 42 lie-flat business-class seats and 216 seats in coach.

Emirates will be the first airline to offer regularly scheduled passenger service between Orlando to the Persian Gulf region. Orlando, of course, is one of the top tourist destinations for foreign visitors to the United States.

"This is a landmark new route for Orlando that for the first time offers our customers non-stop service to the high-growth Middle East region with convenient connections to India, China, Africa, and Southeast Asia," Phil Brown, Executive Director of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority that runs Orlando International Airport, says in a statement.

Emirates president Tim Clark lauded Orlando as a destination, calling it "one of the world's premier leisure and conference destinations, a dynamic business center and a destination which Emirates has long wished to serve."

Flight times are: EK 219 DXB MCO depart 0350 and arrive at 1140 and return: EK 220 MCO DXB depart at 1420 and arrive the next day in Dubai at 1230pm. The flight times are 15:50hrs outbound and 14:10hrs inbound. Assume a 48 hour layvover for an exhausted crew.

Emirates' other nine U.S. destinations are: Boston, Chicago O'Hare, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston Bush Intercontinental, Los Angeles, New York JFK, San Francisco, Seattle and Washngton Dulles. Emirates also flies to Toronto, Canada's largest city.

In addition, Emirates has announced a second daily flight to Seattle using a B777-200LR from 7 July 2015. The schedules are:

EK 227 DXB SEA 0315 0655 and returning as EK 228 SEA DXB 0940 1055+1

I am not sure how much of this is passenger driven - their are rumours that EK has a big contract with Boeing to ship spare parts. But Seattle in the summer is a fun place to be so it should be a popular route.

The additional daily SEA flight and new MCO flight (10th U.S. destination) bring the total U.S. weekly flights to 98. Pretty impressive.

Emirates Airline is fighting an unusual headwind: labor trouble

20 March 2015 The Wall Street Journal

In the U.S. and Europe, the Dubai-owned carrier, the world’s largest international airline by traffic, is fighting accusations by rivals that it benefits from unfair government subsidies. Back home in Dubai, however, it is engaged in a rare tussle with its own cabin-crew staff.

According to current and former staff, cabin-crew employees have been complaining internally about a host of issues, including accusations the airline is asking crew to work more hours and shortening layovers between connecting flights. In response, Emirates is hosting a series of unprecedented meetings where staff can air grievances directly to senior management. It also recently suspended a performance-evaluation system of cabin staff—conducted after each flight—that employees complained was too critical.

Labor trouble is a frequent headache for global carriers, where strikes and other job action can lead to disrupted service. But in Dubai, a semiautonomous monarchy that is part of the United Arab Emirates, strikes and unions are banned. Emirates has long been a demanding employer, especially for cabin-crew personnel—requiring rigorous training, including in etiquette and grooming.

But cabin-crew staff also enjoy benefits not typical at many other airlines, including free accommodation and transportation to and from work. That has all helped keep a lid on open labor strife among its roughly 20,000 cabin-crew employees—at least until now.

The dissent comes as the airline is growing rapidly and trying to recruit aggressively to fill its cabins. Emirates carried 44.5 million passengers in its last financial year, and forecasts 70 million passengers by 2020.

It plans to hire 5,000 more cabin staff this year, to accommodate growth and attrition. That fast clip is straining current staff, according to some employees.

Flight attendants say they are having to work more shifts, with shorter layovers. First-class attendants, who typically work their way up to their postings in premium cabins, are being asked to work in economy to make up for shortages there, according to these employees. Many cabin-crew staff had some annual leave allocation deferred last year, they said.

Emirates said in a statement that it hasn’t shortened layover times, and any changes to staff routines are exceptions that comply with safety rules. Staff have to work in other cabins at times, the carrier said. Emirates didn’t immediately respond to a request seeking comment about deferred leave.

The company also declined to comment generally about cabin-crew complaints, and it declined to make executives available to comment for this article. Saif Al Suwaidi, director general of the General Civil Aviation Authority, the U.A.E.’s airline regulator, said issues about airline labor conditions are a matter to be sorted out between staff and management.

The new gripe sessions announced earlier this year are one way Emirates is trying to manage the complaints. In an email in January to staff announcing the meeting, Terry Daly, Emirates’ senior vice president of service delivery, wrote he was “aware that there are a number of subjects that are causing concern at the moment.” He called the meetings “an opportunity to talk about these directly with me,” according to a copy of the email reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Emirates has held three sessions so far. The first meeting, held last month at Emirates’ Dubai headquarters, dragged on for double the scheduled two hours, according to three attendees. In a statement, Emirates said the forums last month were just one of many ways employees could communicate with management. “We have always encouraged open dialogue,” the carrier said.

Emirates Chief Executive Tim Clark has recently weighed in. Late last year, he started to send a quarterly “update” email to employees, soliciting feedback from staff. But he also warned about gossip mongering: “I’m astonished by the range of colorful stories that sometimes do the rounds in our company,” he wrote in October. His advice, he continued, according to a copy of the email reviewed by the Journal, is to “keep well away from naysayers and gossips and focus instead on our ambition to be one of the most loved lifestyle brands.”

Qatar World Cup Final is December 18 - 2022!

20 March 2015

The World Cup final in Qatar in 2022 will be held on December 18, after FIFA finally confirmed a winter tournament.

Last month, FIFA's Executive Committee announced a recommendation for the global showpiece to be held in the months of November and December.

That decision was taken in a bid to avoid the soaring temperatures in Qatar in the traditional months of June and July, which can often climb above 40 degrees centigrade.

Thursday's announcement, confirmed by Walter De Gregorio, FIFA director of communications is final confirmation that the tournament will be held in the last two months of the year.

Those dates will cause havoc among many domestic leagues, with European heavyweights such as the Premier League and La Liga already voicing strong opposition to such a suggestion.

The date for the final is a national holiday in Qatar, while it has been agreed in principle by FIFA's ExCo that the finals will be played over a shorter timespan - possibly 28 days.

Sweden v Saudi Arabia - hint: no one wins

19 March 2015

In January, Sweden's Foreign Minister, Margot Wallstrom, tweeted criticism of Saudi Arabia's flogging of human rights activist blogger Raif Badawi, calling it a "cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression".

She has also criticized the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, where they cannot drive cars and need permission from a male guardian for many decisions.

Her steadfast joint pursuit of human rights and feminism has antagonised the Arab world and started a debate on the issue of morality in nuanced national foreign policy.

Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Stockholm earlier this month, after Sweden ended a long-standing defense cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia.

The agreement was cancelled due to Sweden's expressed concerns over human rights issues. A few days earlier, Riyadh canceled a speech due to be given to the League of Arab States (in Cairo) by Ms. Wallstrom.

Cards on the table - this is a debate worth having. And the diplomatic tip-toeing around issues of human rights is embarrassing. We will not criticise another nation's human rights record in order that we can preserve military contracts and sales is simply not a sustainable moral position.

The situation has escalated. The GCC nations have leapt to the support of their dominant partner. The Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers condemned the “false accusations” by the Swedish Foreign Minister, Ms Margot Wallström.

A statement issued at the end of the 134th meeting of the GCC ministers in the Saudi capital Riyadh said that the Swedish false accusations were an unacceptable interference in the domestic affairs of Saudi Arabia that is inconsistent with all international conventions and norms.

Which really does show who calls the shots in the Gulf Cooperation Council. It is hard to see how the statements were offensive unless you are highly sensitive.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia considers the offensive remarks made by Sweden's Foreign Minister as a blatant interference in its domestic affairs,” a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official told the Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

“These remarks are inconsistent with international conventions and diplomatic norms and do not conform to the friendly relations between the countries. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia therefore recalls its ambassador to the Kingdom of Sweden,” the official said.

The GCC, established in 1981, comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The UAE's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has recalled the UAE ambassador to Sweden in support of Saudi Arabia.

In addition to recalling the ambassador, Sultan Rashid Al Kaitoob, the ministry also summoned the Swedish ambassador to the UAE, Jan Thesleff, and delivered a formal memorandum of protest over Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom’s remarks, state news agency WAM reported.

Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, highlighted the “condemnation by the UAE of strong statements made by the Foreign Minister of Sweden to the Swedish Parliament against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its judicial system”.

Dr Gargash stressed that these statements violate the principle of sovereignty upon which normal relations between countries are based. He added that such remarks are deemed interference in internal affairs as they do not respect the religious and cultural particularities of states and communities.

Saudi Arabia is now refusing to issue any business visas to Swedes, according to Stockholm's Foreign Ministry.

Sweden’s minority government came to power last October and has suggested that it has a role as what some politicians call a “moral great power”, rather than prioritising security and an export-led economy. There are business groups in Sweden that do not support this position.

Ms Wallström, who is a former EU commissioner, has promised a “feminist” foreign policy.
"I won’t back down over my statements on women’s rights, democracy and that one shouldn’t flog bloggers,” she said, referring to the sentencing of Mr Badawi to 1,000 lashes. “I have nothing to be ashamed of.”

But Sweden is the world’s 12th biggest arms exporter. Its economy depends on brand exports from Ikea to H&M. With Russia also testing Sweden’s air and submarine defences, this may be the wrong time to put human rights front and centre in foreign policy, Ms Wallström’s critics say.

The Saudi defence accord had helped Swedish firms to make 4.8bn krone (£383m) between 2011 and 2014. Signed in 2005, it had been due for renewal in two months.
“Much of what Sweden exports of high technology requires the various types of long-term commitments,” Ms Wallström’s centre-right predecessor Carl Bildt wrote in his blog. “There is a real risk … [the cancellation] will hit Swedish interests, not only in Saudi Arabia itself.” But the Saudi row may not have been Ms Wallström’s doing, and has brought accusations of diplomatic miscalculations by the squabbling coalition government.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, who worked for nearly two decades as a welder in the defence industry, was in favour of a revised Saudi deal. But this was vetoed by left-leaning Social Democrats and the Green Party, the junior partner that keeps him in power.

With signs that Mr Löfven would give in to the Greens, more than 30 business executives published an open letter saying breaking the deal would “jeopardise Sweden’s reputation as a trade partner”. They included fashion retailer H&M’s main owner Stefan Persson and Investor chairman Jacob Wallenberg. “Social Democrats have traditionally been pragmatic in foreign policy,” said Anna Wieslander, deputy director of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. “So this may be about government personalities and coalition wrangling.”

It was not the only controversy. Ms Wallström’s first diplomatic move was to recognise the state of Palestine, prompting Israel to recall its ambassador and angering the United States. Recognising Palestine was of course a move that should have won her friends in the Arab world.

So this is as much about defining Sweden's international role as it is about GCC sensitivities. But as least the debate is being held and that has to be progress.

The price of Netanyahu’s victory

18 March 2015 - The Financial Times - Gideon Rachman

Even some of his bitter enemies would now have to concede that Benjamin Netanyahu is a giant on the Israeli political scene. The results of Israel’s elections mean that the Likud leader is now likely to serve a record fourth term as prime minister, making him his country’s longest-serving prime minister ever. More than ever, “Bibi” is now confirmed as the international face of Israel.

Mr Netanyahu’s victory was won at a price. In a last-minute drive to shore up right-wing support, the Israeli prime minister came out explicitly against the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that he had endorsed in the past. That will further annoy Washington. During the course of the campaign, Mr Netanyahu gave a controversial speech to the US Congress denouncing the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran. As a result, he will begin his next term in office with his standing in the US and Europe in worse shape than ever. That could help the Palestinians in their efforts to take on Israel at the UN and the International Criminal Court.

Yet it is possible to make too much of these campaign-driven shifts in Mr Netanyahu’s position. They have merely made explicit two things that should have been apparent already. First, whatever he says, Bibi has no real interest in a two-state solution. The rhetorical concession to two-states was always contradicted by the Israeli government’s actions in steadily expanding settlements on occupied Palestinian land. And while Mr Netanyahu claimed to believe in a two-state solution, Likud – the party he leads – is dominated by people who have already ruled out a Palestinian state. The second point that the election campaign has confirmed is that Mr Netanyahu and President Obama get on very badly. But we knew that already.

Similarly, while another Likud-led government makes the achievement of peace with the Palestinians even less likely, it would have been a pretty remote prospect even if the centre-left had won the election. Efforts to secure a peace deal based on two states have failed repeatedly over the last 25 years, even when the Israeli left was in power. What is more, current circumstances are even less promising than in the past. Despite a fragile rapprochement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian side is in a mess – fractured, demoralised and lacking in strong leadership. Israeli politics have moved steadily to the right over the last decade and more – a trend confirmed by these elections. And the general regional situation is highly unpromising. Any Israeli government, of whatever stripe, would hesitate to take risks with security – with Syria imploding on one border, Lebanon increasingly shaky and the jihadists of Isis on the rampage. Not to speak of Mr Netanyahu’s favourite bugbear – Iran and its nuclear programme.

The international outlook for Israel, under a fourth Netanyahu government, is therefore fairly bleak. Hamas appears to be re-arming in Gaza, so it is likely there will be another conflict there. The Israeli government also believes that it is only a matter of time before Hizbollah launches a rocket assault over the Lebanese border. There is likely to be a confrontation with the Obama administration over the west’s planned nuclear deal with Iran. And patience with the Netanyahu government in Europe is dwindling, which is increasing the likelihood of boycotts aimed at Israel.

Aerotropolitan ambitions

China’s frenzied building of airports includes work on city-sized projects

Mar 14th 2015 The Economist


Politicians in London who have been debating for years over whether to approve the building of a third runway at Heathrow Airport might find a visit to Zhengzhou—an inland provincial capital little known outside China—an eye-opening experience. Some 20,000 workers are labouring around the clock to build a second terminal and runway for the city’s airport. They are due to begin test operations by December, just three years after ground was broken. By 2030, officials expect, the two terminals and, by then, five runways will handle 70m passengers yearly—about the same as Heathrow now—and 5m tonnes of cargo, more than three times as much as Heathrow last year.

But the ambitions of Zhengzhou airport (pictured) are far bigger than these numbers suggest. It aspires to be the centre of an “aerotropolis”, a city nearly seven times the size of Manhattan with the airport not a noisy intrusion on its edge but built into its very heart. Its perimeter will encompass logistics facilities, R&D centres, exhibition halls and factories that will link central China to the rest of the global economy. It will include homes and amenities for 2.6m people by 2025, about half as many as live in Zhengzhou’s main urban area today. Heathrow struggles to expand because of Londoners’ qualms, but China’s urban planners are not bothered by grumbling; big building projects rarely involve much consulting of the public.

The idea of airport-centred cities is not a Chinese one. John Kasarda of the University of North Carolina helped to promote it in a book he co-wrote, “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next”, which was published in 2011. He is an adviser to Zhengzhou Airport Economic Zone (ZAEZ), as the aerotropolis is called. China, however, is well-placed to turn Mr Kasarda’s etymological mishmash into reality. The Chinese see airports as “competitive assets”, he says, not “nuisances and environmental threats”—although many cities, inspired by another American-invented term, insist they want to turn themselves into green “eco-cities”. New urban centres are being built on greenfield sites across the country. Some are being developed in such disregard of demand that they are becoming eerily empty “ghost towns”. But they are giving planners ample opportunity to build airports alongside new cities, instead of as afterthoughts.

Construction of airports is proceeding at a blistering pace. The government’s plan for 2011-15 called for 82 new airports to be built during this period. In the event, more than 100 have sprung up. Officials are fond of what they call “airport economics”, by which they mean the use of airport-building to boost local economies.

Only in a handful of cases do overseers of these projects explicitly say that they want to build aerotropolises. One example is in the southern outskirts of Beijing, centred on a village called Nangezhuang, where a groundbreaking ceremony was held on December 26th. Little activity is visible: a few pieces of construction equipment sat idle one recent afternoon at the edge of a sorghum field as herders walked their sheep along a nearby dirt road. But by 2019 the area is due to be turned into one of the world’s largest airports, at a cost of 80 billion yuan ($13 billion). As much as 80 billion yuan more will reportedly be spent turning the surrounding area into an economic and industrial hub.

Some wonder whether all this is necessary. Wang Tao of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy, a think-tank in Beijing, calls the airport-construction frenzy “misguided”. He believes many of the cities building big airports do not need them, thanks to a rapid expansion of the country’s high-speed rail network in recent years (see map). Local officials, Mr Wang says, are after political prestige and a quick boost to local GDP; they are happy to leave their successors to grapple with the debts. Many new airports operate at a loss. Mr Kasarda, however, defends the Zhengzhou project. It is misguided, he says, to assess an airport’s value solely by its operational profitability; its role as an economic driver also needs to be taken into account. “We are putting the aerotropolis theory into practice,” says Zhang Yanming, ZAEZ’s Communist Party chief.

Zhengzhou has a long history as a trading and transport hub, well-connected to China’s largest population centres. It also has an abundant supply of labour (it is the capital of Henan province, one of China’s most populous, with more than 100m people). The ZAEZ allows duty-free import and re-export of goods and components. Mr Zhang says this has attracted more than a dozen makers of mobile phones, including Foxconn, a Taiwanese-owned firm best known for producing Apple iPhones. The Foxconn factory employs 200,000 people year-round, and 300,000 at times of peak production. Three-quarters of the iPhones made globally in the past three years came from ZAEZ, Mr Zhang says. Such small, high value-added, products benefit greatly from ready access to airports.

Beijing’s aerotropolis also has built-in advantages, not least strong support from the central government. Mr Kasarda acknowledges that his concept cannot work everywhere, especially in many of China’s smaller cities. But he remains excited by the many suitable candidates in a country that is willing—and more able than most— to give it a try. “They can really design not just an airport, but an aerotropolis from scratch,” he enthuses. It remains to be seen how enthusiastic residents will be about the jets roaring over them.

Updating Dubai airport’s growth plans

13 March 2014

Dubai International Airports has revised growth projections from 103 million to 126 million passengers by 2020, and 200 million by 2030.

With 79 million passengers expected this year (2015) the 2020 figure makes sense. But the 2030 figure can only be an objective.

Growth will also be met with much greater competition from regional airports - Doha, Abu Dhabi and Istanbul's new airport, and from passngers wanting to fly no-stop rather than the inconvenience of transiting a hub airport.

Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports was presenting at the session ‘Future of Airports’ session of the two-day Future of Border International Conference in Dubai.

Griffiths said the Dubai International is currently the world’s number one airport for international passengers and the sixth busiest. “Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai World Central (DWC), which presently has five to seven million passengers capacity, saw 845,046 passengers passing through its gates in its first full year of operations in 2014.” A large part of the DWC business in 2014 was from flights that moved from DXB during the runway closures. DWC has no more than a handful of weekly passenger flights at present.

DWC will have a passenger capacity of 220 million on completion of its second phase, he elaborated. “The first phase of $32 billion expansion of DWC will enable the facility to accommodate 120 million passengers on completion over the next six to eight years.” Which means completion of phase one around 2023; not in time for the 2020 Expo which is on a site adjoining the new airport.

It also means that DWC and DXB are likely to have to be open together at least until phase 2 of DWC has been completed.

No one has actually said this yet or said who will move to DWC and who will stay at DXB. Whatever decision is made given that Dubai's airports depend on transit traffic operating two airports (that are a significant distance apart) will not be convenient.

My guess is that FlyDubai and Emirates will stay at DXB and other airlines will be required to move to DWC. FlyDubai would leave Termianl 2 and move into the vacated D gates which will be used by other airlines at DXB when completed this year.

Griffiths said Al Maktoum International, situated on a 140sqkm site to the south of Dubai, will be 10 times larger than the site of Dubai International, making it the world’s largest airport and the world’s largest intercontinental hub.

Concourse D opens this year with 17 additional gates that can handle 15 million passengers; it will be linked to Terminal 1 via an automated train. Concourse C gates will then be handed over to Emirates who will then occupy A, B and C gates.

Griffiths noted that "parallel developments of additional remote stands and airspace efficiency will lead to an ultimate capacity of 100 million taking into account the increased passenger/flight ratio driven by Emirates’ expanding fleet of A380s.”

The reality is that DWC is years behind its original schedule and every bt of capacity has been squeezed out of DXB to accommodate the rapid growth of Emirates. But airpsace and slot restrictions are hampering the growth and operational plans of Dubai's major international airline.

Too normal to be normal

10 March 2015 The Economist

On March 8th 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a Boeing 777 bound for Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, vanished. To coincide with the anniversary of its disappearance, Malaysia's Ministry of Transport released an interim report on its investigation into what happened. But the report raised more questions than it answered. Indeed, much of the document emphasised what the Associated Press aptly described as the "complete normality" of the flight. It noted no unusual activity by the crew before the flight, and no possible safety or maintenance problems other than an expired (but apparently still functional) battery in the locator beacon for the plane's flight data recorder. Even the weather was normal.

So the new report only deepens the mystery, which now ranks alongside Amelia Earhart's in the pantheon of unsolved aviation disappearances. Everything was fine, and then suddenly it wasn't. It might be decades before anyone understands what happened.

All this uncertainty has fuelled the creation of some bizarre theories, none more prominent than that of Jeff Wise, a pilot and science writer who published several thousand words on the subject in New York magazine late last month. Mr Wise's theory, in short, is that Russian agents highjacked the plane and flew it to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, while using technical trickery to make it appear as if the plane had flown south, into some of the deepest parts of the Indian Ocean. This theory is, to say the least, hard to believe; as Mr Wise notes in the article, not even his own wife thinks it's true.

New York magazine, which is high-profile and award-winning, should have added a touch more scepticism about the theory into the piece. (A short list of problems with the explanation: it demands that a lot of people keep a very big secret; it relies too much on the idea that investigators must have found some floating wreckage by now if the plane crashed in the ocean; and doesn't—at least in this blogger's opinion—offer a convincing motive for the supposed hijacking.) You should be careful not to take it too seriously. But it's a fun read. (If you're really intrigued, you can buy Mr Wise's Kindle Single on the subject.)

It is not the only reputable news organisation to lapse into some anniversary speculation. The BBC broadcast an interview in which two former 777 captains gave air to their suppositions. One, Simon Hardy, suggested that the path taken by MH370, which included an unusual and "emotional" last look at the island of Penang, the birthplace of the captain of the flight, points towards suicide as a motive. He backs this up with other clues, such as the plane's careful route cutting in and out of Thai and Malaysian airspace, which he supposes was designed to throw air traffic controllers of its trail.

In the absence of hard evidence it is inevitable that romping reads and strange conspiracy theories will fill the vacuum. Whether that is useful is debatable.

Lost boy

9 March 2015

A seven year old boy has been living in the Bhumibol public hospital in northern Bangkok for the last two months.

His grandmother is hospitalised with a brain tumour. Poom, I have not changed his name, visits with his grandfather every day. They stay in a dormitory attached to the hospital for Baht70 (US$2 a day).

Poon's parents are both working - living in Northern Thailand. An only child, Poom lives with his grandparents.

This bright, engaging boy has made the hospital his new home and knows his way around the rabbit warren of wards and corridors.

He has a notepad with a few Chinese and English words that he is learning.

His food is from whatever his grandmother cannot eat or whatever he is given by visitors. The nurses give his grandfather any leftovers from patient trays.

Poom says that his grandfather paid Baht 15,000 (US$500) for his wife's surgery. They have no other money. His grandfather is wiry, thin, strained. Yet Poom is bright, cheerful, inquisitive and trusting.

We took him for lunch in the canteen. He ate happily. But his real concern was to look out for Tai and make sure that she found our table.

We watched videos on a mobile phone. Alternating between Spiderman and anything with trains. Airplanes were cool as well. We could see the planes leaving from Don Muang airport and he has been there long enough to recognise Nok, Air Asia and Thai.

"Lost boy" is a bit misleading. He is not lost. He is still engaging with the world. But he has also been out of school for two months and has few friends of his own age that he can interact with.

Bhumibol is a public hospital. It does the best that it can. But it is busy. There are not enough doctors and nurses. The wards are crowded and many of the patients may not leave. For me it is a thoroughly depressing place. For Poom - it is his playground.

The odds are stacked against him. But he does not see that. He made quite an impression.

Where regulation holds back Emirates growth

7 March 2015

With the big 3 airlines in the USA pushing back against open skies agreements wit hthe Middle East it is worth a look at those countrie where Emirates growth is restricted by existinf bu-lateral agreements.

This list will be updated as I (slowly) research the subject.

The agreements are between governments so the rules inpact Emirates and Etihad (and to a lesser extenet Air Arabia) as the major UAE acrriers.

USA: Open Skies but under threat from the three major US airlines.
UK: Open Skies
Canada: UAE is restricted to one daily flight to Canada.
India: India is unique in having separate bilaterals with different emirates of the UAE; agreements are currently in place with Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah.
Pakistan:
South Africa:
Phillipinnes: Emirates has been forced to end its third daily flight to Manila.
Germany: UAE airlines are allowed to fly unlimited flights to the four German destinations of their choice.
France:
Netherlands:
Japan: Under the 2103 bilateral agreement, UAE carriers will be able to serve Abu Dhabi-Tokyo Narita and Dubai-Tokyo Narita 14 times weekly for each pairing, a doubling from the previous limit of seven weekly services. Traffic rights to Tokyo's convenient downtown airport, Tokyo Haneda, have also been introduced, with both Dubai and Abu Dhabi allowed seven weekly services from each city to Haneda.

Eurowings to Dubai for €99.99

7 March 2015

Lufthansa, Europe’s second-largest airline, announced €99.99 introductory fares for its new long-haul venture, Eurowings, to Dubai on Wednesday.

The airline will fly to Al Maktoum International at Dubai World Central (DWC) from Cologne Bonn Airport, in Germany’s east, from October 25, Eurowings said in a statement.

Fares will start at €99.99 one-way.

“We are not presumptuous to think that we could challenge Emirates with two weekly flights to Dubai given the massive capacity they have,” Karl Ulrich Garnadt, who heads Lufthansa’s passenger business, told Bloomberg in an interview in Berlin where the announcement was made.

Eurowings will offer 620 seats per week between Dubai and Cologne compared to the 3500 weekly seats offered by Emirates to the German cities Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Munich.

“This is not a provocation; I believe Emirates won’t even notice this.” The venture will start out with promotion prices, which will soon be raised, he said.

Lufthansa has in the past openly opposed the growth of the three major Gulf airlines, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways.

The German airline decided in October to axe its Abu Dhabi service citing increased capacity from fellow German carrier Air Berlin, in which Etihad owns nearly 30 per cent.

Eurowings will be the second European low cost carrier flying from DWC in the emirates south. Hungary’s Wizz Air was one of the launch carriers from DWC when passenger flights started in October 2013.

The new Eurowings brand is based on Lufthansa’s Germanwings airline, a low cost airline in Germany and Europe.

Eurowings will also fly to Bangkok and Phuket in Thailand and Caribbean cities Varadero, Bridgetown and Punta Cana.

The Eurowings fleet will initially consist of two long-haul aircraft Airbus A330-200 and later expanded to seven.

SunExpress Deutschland, a joint venture of Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines, will operate the long-haul route aircraft on behalf of the new Eurowings. Vienna has been chosen as the first definite location outside of Germany as a new Eurowings base.

Emirates fleet speculation

7 March 2015

Emirates airlines is considering the purchase of up to 70 twin-engined Airbus A350s or Boeing 787s, company president Tim Clark said in Berlin Thursday, which would bolster the carrier’s long-haul fleet.

Clark remained vague on the number and maker of twin-engined wide-body planes, but said the acquisition was part of Emirates’s efforts to increase its share of the traffic on the world’s long-haul routes.

“Possibly it will be 50 to 70, but we still have to decide,” Clark said during a visit to Berlin’s ITB tourism convention, adding many details on the planned purchase will depend on development of Emirates’ principal Dubai International Airport hub.

The announcement represented more potential good news for Airbus, following Clark’s earlier comments that Emirates may buy 100 to 200 A380s — the superjumbo that Airbus received no orders for in 2014.

The Dubai Air Show is in November this year. It may be that any new orders are only announced at that time.

The emperor has few clothes

3 March 2015 The Nation newspaper

The international community remains sceptical of the Thai government's claims of democratic reform

Falsehoods won't help Thailand salvage an international reputation badly tarnished by undemocratic rule and rights violations. In fact, the propaganda and denials being pumped out by the Foreign Ministry and its envoys abroad are making the Kingdom look worse.

Thai envoys have borne the brunt of strong international criticism of the May 22 coup and junta rule. The diplomats and Foreign Ministry officials are in a tricky position. Not at liberty to offer their own interpretation of political developments in Thailand, they must instead follow the official line of their military government. However, foreign countries have other, often more reliable, sources of information, including their own embassies here, the news media and international and local rights groups. Developments in Bangkok reach ears in Washington, New York, London, Beijing and Tokyo in minutes, if not seconds. Few facts can be concealed from view in our relatively open society.

But the main fact of international concern is the military's seizure of power from a democratically elected government. The long-held international consensus is that elections are the only legitimate way to change a government. Thus, as long as the Thai government remains non-elected and military-backed, countries will call Thailand an authoritarian state. Likewise, as long as martial law remains in force, we can expect foreign criticism of basic rights violations here. And, as long as the constitution currently being drafted contains undemocratic elements, foreigners will question the Thai government's commitment to democratic reform.

The proposal for a non-elected Senate is just one example. If it stands, ordinary voters would lose their say in the composition of this powerful checks-and-balances watchdog for the executive branch. Without an elected Senate, how can we call to account those who have the important job of scrutinising government legislation? An elected Senate worked quite well under the 1997 Constitution, so why change the system? And how can Thai diplomats defend the change as "democratic reform"?

Unfortunately they will have little choice in the matter. Several Thai diplomats have already told their counterparts, host countries and international media that Thailand has no political prisoners. As long as people remain imprisoned in this country because of their political beliefs or actions, the government cannot expect to be believed when it claims there are none.

According to Amnesty International, 665 individuals were arrested or detained for resisting the junta's orders in the three months after the coup. Among them, nearly 100 faced criminal prosecution, while more than 50 faced a military court.

Even worse, dozens of individuals have been charged or investigated for alleged lese majeste, under a draconian law imposed to silence criticism of the monarchy. Of course, many democratic countries also have laws to protect their heads of state, but the Thai version faces widespread international criticism that the establishment here uses it as a political tool to silence opposition. Suspects are rarely granted bail and many are treated as if they were murderers, though it is often unclear how their offending words or expressions could have damaged the monarchy.

The world knows what is going on in Thailand. Denials and obfuscation will not help us regain our place on the international stage. For that to happen, we need genuine democratic reform.

Planespotters arrested in the UAE

3 March 2015

There are times when the UAE is its own worst enemy. All the money spent on mega projects and tourist promotions is easily undone by overly zealous police work, misunderstanding, and unnecessary arrests.

On 22 February three British plane spotters were arrested at Fujairah Airport over allegations of suspicious behaviour.

The men are being held at Fujairah prison on suspicion of breaching “national security”, according to the charity Detained in Dubai, which has now intervened and is seeking the trio’s release.


There really is little to see at Fujairah airport except some old, stored, rust buckets sitting on the tarmac gathering dust.

Conrad Clitheroe is one of the three men arrested - it is very obvious from his facebook page that he is a serious ‪#‎avgeek‬ -

https://www.facebook.com/people/Conrad-Clitheroe/689166488#

Sending these three guys home immediately would make a great deal of good sense.
 

Three British men have been arrested in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) accused of breaching “national security” after they were found photographing and taking notes near an airport.

The trio, who claim to have been plane spotting, are understood to be being held at Fujairah prison after being confronted by an off-duty policeman at Fujairah Airport, about 80 miles from Dubai.

Valerie Clitheroe said her husband Conrad, 53, and his friend Gary Cooper, 45, had been detained along with their former work colleague, Neil Munro, since February 21.

Her husband, who was due to return to the UK on February 22, was being forced to share a cell with more than 20 men, she said. “He's really choked up every time I've spoken him. They're trying to help each other but it's difficult not knowing.”

Ms Clitheroe, from Stockport, Greater Manchester, said she has spoken to her husband three times on the telephone since his arrest and has raised concerns over his health.

She added: “They would never do anything that could risk national security. They weren't taking pictures. They didn't realise plane spotting was such an issue.”

The charity Detained in Dubai has now intervened and is seeking the men’s release. "All three friends have a shared hobby of plane spotting and were keen to see Fujairah airport, where many older and rarer aircrafts can be seen,” a spokeswoman said.

“The practice is legal in the UAE though not widely understood, nor appreciated by authorities. The families are in obvious distress at how a simple and common hobby behaviour can turn into a prison ordeal. "

A Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) spokesman said: "We can confirm the arrest of three British nationals in Dubai on 22 February. We are providing consular assistance at this time."

Solar Impulse 2

3 March 2015

Solar Impulse 2, the only solar airplane able to fly day and night without a drop of fuel, is flying over the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE. The aircraft is undertaking preparation flights for the first ever Round-The-World Solar Flight which will be attempted starting early March from Abu Dhabi

 

 

 

 

Emirates New York blitz

2 March 2015

New York; New York; New York; New York.

From 1st June Emirates will be sending four A380s each and every day from Dubai to New York; three non-stop and one via Milan.

Pretty amazing. Emirates will introduce its fourth daily service to New York from March 8.

EK207 will depart Dubai at 1450 and arrive in JFK at 2035 and the return flight, EK208, will depart JFK at 1630 and arrive in Dubai at 1315 the following day.

The existing three services are all morning flights from Dubai (0225, 0830 and 0905). The new service provides more choice for passengers connecting later in Dubai, and flying onwards in America with codeshare and frequent flyer partner JetBlue Airways.

The introduction of the fourth flight – which will be operated by an A380, adding another 489 seats into the market – will be a concern for US carriers which are already facing increasingly stiff competition from all three Gulf carriers, which all serve New York directly. Emirates also flies to Boston direct and has been serving Chicago since August.

Emirates’ fourth New York service via Milan will also change to an A380 from 1st June 2105.

Emirates announces Bali

2 March 2015

At last many will say. This does seem overdue. Emirates Airline will launch a new daily service to the island of Bali in Indonesia, from June 3.

Unlike previous new flights this will not start with an A330. It goes daily as a two class 777-300ER with 428 seats.

Bali, which welcomed more than 3.7 million foreign tourist arrivals in 2014, will be Emirates’ 148th global destination; that number includes a number of freighter only destinations.

“Bali is a significantly important market for Emirates. There is high interest in Bali from across our network, specifically in the leisure segment.

“We are pleased to be able to offer the Emirates product on a daily basis, connecting passengers in Bali to Dubai and to more than 80 destinations in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas, via one convenient stop in Dubai,” said Thierry Antinori, executive vice president and chief commercial officer at Emirates airline.

“The new service will greatly increase convenience, choice, and consistency of travel experience for consumers who currently have to travel via multiple stops, or via other points in Indonesia to reach Bali.”

The daily flight to Denpasar, Bali will depart Dubai as EK398 at 0820hrs and arrive at 2140 hrs the same day.

The return flight, EK399, will depart at 2340hrs and arrive at Dubai International Airport at 0500 the next day.

Emirates commenced services to Indonesia in 1992 with three flights per week via Singapore and Colombo, and since March 2013, the airline has been operating three non-stop flights daily from Jakarta to Dubai with a Boeing 777 aircraft.

NokScoot still grounded

2 March 2015

News on the worst named airline (not yet) in the skies.

NokScoot is still to fly its first revenue flight. It has now revised the planned launch of scheduled operations to early May of this year, regulatory approvals notwithstanding. Having secured both its Air Transport Service License and its Air Operators Certificates from the Thai government last year, the start-up has been in the process of securing the requisite operating permits and slots for its intended international routes.

Minority shareholder, the Singapore Airlines Group, said in its earnings announcement for the third quarter of its 2015 Financial Year that while NokScoot had originally intended to serve Tokyo Narita in Japan initially, it would now adopt a more flexible approach and would consider serving Japan alongside South Korea and China in its opening phase.

On its launch, the longhaul budget carrier will operate a trio of high-density B777-200(ER)s, formerly with Scoot (TZ, Singapore Changi), featuring 415 seats in a two-class configuration. 415 seats on a 777-200 must be some sort of unwelcome record.

According to CAPA, NokScoot has confirmed that it does not plan to operate any additional B777s beyond the initial three and is instead looking to secure 2017 delivery slots for new generation aircraft – most likely B787-9s although it also plans to look at A330s.

Where is home?

1 March 2015 - Pico Iyer

This is a Pico Iyer talk at a TED event in 2013 - but it is worth repeating:

Where do you come from? It's such a simple question, but these days, of course, simple questions bring ever more complicated answers.

People are always asking me where I come from, and they're expecting me to say India, and they're absolutely right insofar as 100 percent of my blood and ancestry does come from India. Except, I've never lived one day of my life there. I can't speak even one word of its more than 22,000 dialects. So I don't think I've really earned the right to call myself an Indian. And if "Where do you come from?" means "Where were you born and raised and educated?" then I'm entirely of that funny little country known as England, except I left England as soon as I completed my undergraduate education, and all the time I was growing up, I was the only kid in all my classes who didn't begin to look like the classic English heroes represented in our textbooks. And if "Where do you come from?" means "Where do you pay your taxes? Where do you see your doctor and your dentist?" then I'm very much of the United States, and I have been for 48 years now, since I was a really small child. Except, for many of those years, I've had to carry around this funny little pink card with green lines running through my face identifying me as a permanent alien. I do actually feel more alien the longer I live there.

And if "Where do you come from?" means "Which place goes deepest inside you and where do you try to spend most of your time?" then I'm Japanese, because I've been living as much as I can for the last 25 years in Japan. Except, all of those years I've been there on a tourist visa, and I'm fairly sure not many Japanese would want to consider me one of them.

And I say all this just to stress how very old-fashioned and straightforward my background is, because when I go to Hong Kong or Sydney or Vancouver, most of the kids I meet are much more international and multi-cultured than I am. And they have one home associated with their parents, but another associated with their partners, a third connected maybe with the place where they happen to be, a fourth connected with the place they dream of being, and many more besides. And their whole life will be spent taking pieces of many different places and putting them together into a stained glass whole. Home for them is really a work in progress. It's like a project on which they're constantly adding upgrades and improvements and corrections.

And for more and more of us, home has really less to do with a piece of soil than, you could say, with a piece of soul. If somebody suddenly asks me, "Where's your home?" I think about my sweetheart or my closest friends or the songs that travel with me wherever I happen to be.

And I'd always felt this way, but it really came home to me, as it were, some years ago when I was climbing up the stairs in my parents' house in California, and I looked through the living room windows and I saw that we were encircled by 70-foot flames, one of those wildfires that regularly tear through the hills of California and many other such places. And three hours later, that fire had reduced my home and every last thing in it except for me to ash. And when I woke up the next morning, I was sleeping on a friend's floor, the only thing I had in the world was a toothbrush I had just bought from an all-night supermarket. Of course, if anybody asked me then, "Where is your home?" I literally couldn't point to any physical construction. My home would have to be whatever I carried around inside me.

And in so many ways, I think this is a terrific liberation. Because when my grandparents were born, they pretty much had their sense of home, their sense of community, even their sense of enmity, assigned to them at birth, and didn't have much chance of stepping outside of that. And nowadays, at least some of us can choose our sense of home, create our sense of community, fashion our sense of self, and in so doing maybe step a little beyond some of the black and white divisions of our grandparents' age. No coincidence that the president of the strongest nation on Earth is half-Kenyan, partly raised in Indonesia, has a Chinese-Canadian brother-in-law.

The number of people living in countries not their own now comes to 220 million, and that's an almost unimaginable number, but it means that if you took the whole population of Canada and the whole population of Australia and then the whole population of Australia again and the whole population of Canada again and doubled that number, you would still have fewer people than belong to this great floating tribe. And the number of us who live outside the old nation-state categories is increasing so quickly, by 64 million just in the last 12 years, that soon there will be more of us than there are Americans. Already, we represent the fifth-largest nation on Earth. And in fact, in Canada's largest city, Toronto, the average resident today is what used to be called a foreigner, somebody born in a very different country.

And I've always felt that the beauty of being surrounded by the foreign is that it slaps you awake. You can't take anything for granted. Travel, for me, is a little bit like being in love, because suddenly all your senses are at the setting marked "on." Suddenly you're alert to the secret patterns of the world. The real voyage of discovery, as Marcel Proust famously said, consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes. And of course, once you have new eyes, even the old sights, even your home become something different.

Many of the people living in countries not their own are refugees who never wanted to leave home and ache to go back home. But for the fortunate among us, I think the age of movement brings exhilarating new possibilities. Certainly when I'm traveling, especially to the major cities of the world, the typical person I meet today will be, let's say, a half-Korean, half-German young woman living in Paris. And as soon as she meets a half-Thai, half-Canadian young guy from Edinburgh, she recognizes him as kin. She realizes that she probably has much more in common with him than with anybody entirely of Korea or entirely of Germany. So they become friends. They fall in love. They move to New York City. (Laughter) Or Edinburgh. And the little girl who arises out of their union will of course be not Korean or German or French or Thai or Scotch or Canadian or even American, but a wonderful and constantly evolving mix of all those places. And potentially, everything about the way that young woman dreams about the world, writes about the world, thinks about the world, could be something different, because it comes out of this almost unprecedented blend of cultures. Where you come from now is much less important than where you're going. More and more of us are rooted in the future or the present tense as much as in the past. And home, we know, is not just the place where you happen to be born. It's the place where you become yourself.

And yet, there is one great problem with movement, and that is that it's really hard to get your bearings when you're in midair. Some years ago, I noticed that I had accumulated one million miles on United Airlines alone. You all know that crazy system, six days in hell, you get the seventh day free.

And I began to think that really, movement was only as good as the sense of stillness that you could bring to it to put it into perspective.

And eight months after my house burned down, I ran into a friend who taught at a local high school, and he said, "I've got the perfect place for you."

"Really?" I said. I'm always a bit skeptical when people say things like that.

"No, honestly," he went on, "it's only three hours away by car, and it's not very expensive, and it's probably not like anywhere you've stayed before."

"Hmm." I was beginning to get slightly intrigued. "What is it?"

"Well —" Here my friend hemmed and hawed — "Well, actually it's a Catholic hermitage."

This was the wrong answer. I had spent 15 years in Anglican schools, so I had had enough hymnals and crosses to last me a lifetime. Several lifetimes, actually. But my friend assured me that he wasn't Catholic, nor were most of his students, but he took his classes there every spring. And as he had it, even the most restless, distractible, testosterone-addled 15-year-old Californian boy only had to spend three days in silence and something in him cooled down and cleared out. He found himself.

And I thought, "Anything that works for a 15-year-old boy ought to work for me." So I got in my car, and I drove three hours north along the coast, and the roads grew emptier and narrower, and then I turned onto an even narrower path, barely paved, that snaked for two miles up to the top of a mountain. And when I got out of my car, the air was pulsing. The whole place was absolutely silent, but the silence wasn't an absence of noise. It was really a presence of a kind of energy or quickening. And at my feet was the great, still blue plate of the Pacific Ocean. All around me were 800 acres of wild dry brush. And I went down to the room in which I was to be sleeping. Small but eminently comfortable, it had a bed and a rocking chair and a long desk and even longer picture windows looking out on a small, private, walled garden, and then 1,200 feet of golden pampas grass running down to the sea. And I sat down, and I began to write, and write, and write, even though I'd gone there really to get away from my desk.

And by the time I got up, four hours had passed. Night had fallen, and I went out under this great overturned saltshaker of stars, and I could see the tail lights of cars disappearing around the headlands 12 miles to the south. And it really seemed like my concerns of the previous day vanishing.

And the next day, when I woke up in the absence of telephones and TVs and laptops, the days seemed to stretch for a thousand hours. It was really all the freedom I know when I'm traveling, but it also profoundly felt like coming home.

And I'm not a religious person, so I didn't go to the services. I didn't consult the monks for guidance. I just took walks along the monastery road and sent postcards to loved ones. I looked at the clouds, and I did what is hardest of all for me to do usually, which is nothing at all.

And I started to go back to this place, and I noticed that I was doing my most important work there invisibly just by sitting still, and certainly coming to my most critical decisions the way I never could when I was racing from the last email to the next appointment.

And I began to think that something in me had really been crying out for stillness, but of course I couldn't hear it because I was running around so much. I was like some crazy guy who puts on a blindfold and then complains that he can't see a thing. And I thought back to that wonderful phrase I had learned as a boy from Seneca, in which he says, "That man is poor not who has little but who hankers after more."

And, of course, I'm not suggesting that anybody here go into a monastery. That's not the point. But I do think it's only by stopping movement that you can see where to go. And it's only by stepping out of your life and the world that you can see what you most deeply care about and find a home. And I've noticed so many people now take conscious measures to sit quietly for 30 minutes every morning just collecting themselves in one corner of the room without their devices, or go running every evening, or leave their cell phones behind when they go to have a long conversation with a friend.

Movement is a fantastic privilege, and it allows us to do so much that our grandparents could never have dreamed of doing. But movement, ultimately, only has a meaning if you have a home to go back to. And home, in the end, is of course not just the place where you sleep. It's the place where you stand.

Station Eleven review – Emily St John Mandel's gripping apocalypse drama

27 February 2015 from The Guardian

My current reading - and very good it is too.

In her much-tipped fourth novel, longlisted last week for a US National Book award, Canadian author Emily St John Mandel makes something subtle and unusual out of elements that have become garishly overfamiliar. A virulent new strain of flu that "exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth", wiping out 99% of humanity; characters holed up in tower blocks while the world collapses around them; "unspeakable years" in which the unlucky survivors walk blasted roads in search of vestiges of civilisation; crazed prophets leading murderous cults and "ferals" leaping out from behind bushes. We all know the script, as Mandel drily notes when one character begins a supermarket sweep of bottled water and tinned food: "Jeevan's understanding of disaster preparedness was based entirely on action movies, but on the other hand, he'd seen a lot of action movies."

But whereas most apocalypse novels push grimly forward into horror or dystopia, Station Eleven skips back and forth between the pre-flu world and Year Twenty after global collapse, when the worst is over and survivors have banded together into isolated settlements. Gradually, the book builds cumulative power as connections are made between the two time frames, and characters who do or don't survive: including Jeevan, a paparazzo who planned to become a paramedic; Kirsten, a child actor who grows up to perform Shakespeare after the pandemic; and Miranda, whose creative energies were poured into a hand-drawn comic called Station Eleven which miraculously survives, becoming both a totem of the old world and a distorted mirror of the new.

The man who links them all, Arthur Leander, is a famous actor who dies on stage just before the Georgia Flu sweeps the world. Though he doesn't experience the catastrophe, his story is at the heart of the book, and this is typical of Mandel's roving, slantwise focus. For the last night on earth before the lights start to go out, she dwells on the production of King Lear which is Arthur's last; in the post-pandemic world, she follows Kirsten and the rest of the Travelling Symphony, a peripatetic band of actors and musicians whose motto, taken from Star Trek, is "survival is insufficient". They struggle and squabble – someone has scribbled "Hell is other people" inside one of their caravans, and someone else has crossed out "other people" and written "flutes" – but find safety and purpose as well as "moments of transcendent beauty" in their shared endeavour.

Such frozen moments appear as tableaux throughout the book: fake snow falling on the cast of King Lear as they gather around the fallen Arthur; Miranda gazing from a twilit beach at huge lit-up ships out to sea as the world comes to a standstill; the flat, eerie panels of Miranda's Station Eleven. Unlike Anne Washburn in her recent play Mr Burns, which also featured a travelling band of actors in a dystopic future America, Mandel isn't interested in how apocalypse might act upon art: this is very much a novel about individual rather than collective destiny. The glacial calm of her prose extends to the characters, so that while the book is visually stunning, dreamily atmospheric and impressively gripping, we never feel the urgency and panic of global disaster, let alone its moral weight.

But perhaps that is beside the point. Station Eleven is not so much about apocalypse as about memory and loss, nostalgia and yearning; the effort of art to deepen our fleeting impressions of the world and bolster our solitude. Mandel evokes the weary feeling of life slipping away, for Arthur as an individual and then writ large upon the entire world. In Year Twenty, Kirsten, who was eight when the flu hit, is interviewed about her memories, and says that the new reality is hardest to bear for those old enough to remember how the world was before. "The more you remember, the more you've lost," she explains – a sentiment that could apply to any of us, here and now.

Some notes on Emirates' financials

27 February 2015

“The main criticism leveled at Emirates by rivals is that it benefits from indirect government subsidies in the form of cheaper fuel, very low landing fees and cheap aircraft financing. The
fact is that Emirates pays market rate for fuel and that only around 20% of its fleet is financed through export credit agencies such as the US Export-Import Bank. It is true that landing fees are low at Dubai compared to other hubs but the legacy carriers in Europe also enjoy a significant advantage having inherited around half the valuable slots at their respective hub airports.
The main cost advantage of Emirates comes from higher employee productivity.” Deutsche Bank

“An overview of the audited financial accounts contains no material surprises once one gets used to seeing consistent profits at an airline… Emirates’ key competitive advantage is its relative youth (the fleet and the company), the location and efficiency of the Dubai hub, and strong management.” UBS

We cannot find anything in Emirates’ accounts which indicates that the business is subsidised directly or indirectly or given any undue preferences”…“We are encouraged by the high
level of disclosure that Emirates offers, even as an unlisted company.” JP Morgan

“Gulf carriers remain a material strategic challenge to the European legacy industry. But we do not see their growth creating an inevitable structural crisis in the industry. We would expect
European carriers to continue to lobby against the advantages of the Gulf carriers…The most successful strategy, however, in our view, will be to focus their development on routes where they have structural geographic advantage over Gulf carriers, rather than chasing those markets where Dubai’s location and Emirates’ strong network give it a major advantage.” RBS

The Blowback From Delta CEO’s Open Skies Escalation

22 February 2015 The Associated Press

U.S. airlines have been sparring for several years with fast-growing Persian Gulf rivals that seem to be poaching passengers from the Americans. Now, a CEO’s comment that dragged 9/11 into the debate has escalated the fight.

The three largest U.S. airlines claim that three big Gulf carriers have received more than $40 billion in subsidies from their governments since 2004, making competition with them unfair because their costs are artificially low. The CEOs of American, United and Delta are asking federal officials to renegotiate or kill treaties that have allowed airlines from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to increase flights to the U.S.

American, United and Delta say that unless the treaties are changed, they will be forced to cut back or drop international routes.

State-owned Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways say that the U.S. airlines are merely blocking competition and protecting the high fares they charge on international flights. Some U.S. consumer groups agree.

The Gulf airlines also have also claimed that the U.S. airlines have gotten subsidies too. And that is where things got testy this week.

After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress approved $5 billion in cash aid and up to $10 billion in loan guarantees to help U.S. airlines survive a sharp drop in travel. The Gulf airlines contend that those payments, and benefits that major U.S. airlines received from bankruptcy protection, amounted to subsidies.

In response to those claims, Delta CEO Richard Anderson seemed to link the Gulf carriers and their nations to the 9/11 attacks, in which American Airlines and United Airlines jets were crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington, killing nearly 3,000 people.

“It’s a great irony to have the United Arab Emirates from the Arabian peninsula talk about that, given the fact that our industry was really shocked by the terrorism of 9/11, which came from terrorists from the Arabian peninsula,” Anderson said on CNN.

On Thursday, Emirates charged that Anderson’s comments were “deliberately crafted and delivered for specific effect. This brings into question his credibility.” Earlier, Emirates CEO Tim Clark had said Anderson “crossed the line” with the comments about 9/11, which “caused great offense in this part of the world.”

The United Arab Emirates is among the most prominent Arab members in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, and all three big Gulf carriers are major customers of U.S.-made Boeing jets — together, they have taken 176 Boeing jets and have another 544 on order.

Delta said that Anderson did not mean to link the Gulf airlines or their governments to the 9/11 attackers.

In a statement, Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton said Anderson was only reacting to claims by the Gulf carriers that the post-9/11 payments and bankruptcy laws amounted to subsidies. “We apologize if anyone was offended,” she said.

The U.S. airlines have been complaining about the Gulf carriers for several years. They say unfair competition has reduced the share of traffic between the U.S. and the Indian subcontinent on U.S. and partner airlines while the Gulf carriers’ share has grown. They say the Gulf carriers are now targeting routes between the U.S. and Europe.

But the effort to reopen or repeal aviation treaties is opposed by some consumer groups, who say the agreements have boosted competition and lowered fares.

“The overall impression is that the big U.S. network airlines want to lock out independent airlines that offer lower fares, newer airplanes, faster connections, more destinations and better service,” said Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition.

American, Delta and United declined to make their CEOs available for interviews.

Thailand’s ineffective rule by force

21 February 2015 The Washington Post editorial

NINE MONTHS after staging a coup against a democratically elected government, Thailand’s military has little to show for it. The economy is stagnant, one of the worst performing in Asia. The national “reconciliation” the generals promised is nowhere to be seen: There are hundreds of political prisoners, and a criminal prosecution of ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra is underway. Martial law remains in effect, making it illegal to hold any gathering without permission and crippling free expression.

Junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha lamely protests that, unlike the military-backed regime of Egypt, his has not killed anyone. But given his reactionary plan to permanently hobble democracy, even that dubious distinction may not endure much longer.

The army is attempting to accomplish something it has failed at twice before: a political system that eliminates the influence of the Shinawatra family, which has won every election in Thailand since 2001. Thaksin Shinawatra, the family’s exiled leader, gained wide support among the rural poor with a populist program that infuriates the country’s traditional elite, including the military leadership.

Mr. Thaksin was guilty of authoritarian abuses while in office, and some of the policies he favored were ill-advised. But the ouster of three elected governments since 2006 has succeeded only in entrenching his support. Thai analysts believe that, if a free election were held now, Ms. Yingluck or another family nominee would win again.

Knowing that, Mr. Prayuth has delayed elections despite a promise that his regime would last only a year. But the generals have had trouble restoring relations with Thailand’s closest allies, including the United States, where a law mandated the shutdown of military aid and training programs after the coup. So during a visit to Tokyo this month, Mr. Prayuth pledged that an election would be held at the end of this year or in early 2016 — on the generals’ terms.

The military plan envisions a rewrite of Thailand’s constitution without a referendum to approve the result. The political system would be tilted, with reserved seats in parliament for the military and its supporters and tight controls on parties. The election itself would be held under martial law, making it impossible for parties or candidates to campaign freely.

The junta appears to hope it can return Thailand to the 1980s, when sham elections were followed by the installation of governments headed by generals. But Thailand has changed since then: An election held on the military’s plan could prompt Thais to take to the streets or turn to violence.

It should also be unacceptable to the United States. The Obama administration missed an important opportunity to use its leverage in Thailand when it went ahead with annual military exercises this month that are an important source of prestige for the generals. Its budget for next year proposes new military assistance for Thailand, though that should not be possible by law unless the country returns to democracy.

Mr. Prayuth should get the message that in the absence of meaningful steps, starting with the lifting of martial law, the Thai military will lose its relationship with the United States, including future exercises. If the Obama administration is unwilling to act, Congress should step in.

Thailand’s generals have failed: it is time that democracy, in spite of its problems, is restored

20 February 2015 The Guardian editorial

Thai political life after last year’s military takeover hovers somewhere between farce and tragedy. Farce, when the government had to hurriedly delete a scene showing a schoolboy painting a picture of Hitler in a film promoting prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s “12 core values”, a list of duties and responsibilities vaguely reminiscent of Vichy France’s “travail, famille, patrie”.

Incompetence, sabotage, or what: who knows? It was farcical, too, when a prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who had already been forced out, was solemnly impeached by an assembly that did not have the power to impeach. Even if it had, nobody could explain how impeachment, a method of removing a leader from office, could apply to one who had already departed. But such constitutional illiteracy is an everyday phenomenon in the generals’ Thailand. Farce, again, but darker, when critics are “invited” to army installations for “attitude adjustment” sessions. Farce, shading into persecution, when opponents are tried in military courts with no right of appeal or forced to sign documents that allow the seizure of their assets if they engage in political activity, or pursued on corruption charges when similar allegations against the junta’s supporters are neglected.

The latest twist came on Thursday when the attorney general filed charges against Yingluck, the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, who turned Thai politics upside down a decade and a half ago. Thaksin, now in exile, tapped into the needs, aspirations and frustrations of the less well-off majority, particularly in the countryside, and did it in a way that has enabled him or his proxies to win every election in Thailand since. The Thai elite was both enraged and perplexed, and remains so. It felt his majority was somehow unfair, that he had bought his support, and indeed Thaksin was and is a populist bearing some resemblance to a figure like Silvio Berlusconi. Still, he had the votes. Subterfuge, legal legerdemain and, finally, military intervention have all failed to alter the situation: the Thaksin phenomenon won’t go away, and wouldn’t even if he himself were to pass from the scene.

As the Thai military and its civilian allies labour in vain to create a political system that looks respectable but in which the pro-Thaksin forces cannot win, there are signs that elements within the regime understand that some form of accommodation might be more realistic and more successful. Shadowy envoys flit back and forth between Bangkok and Dubai, where Thaksin lives. The charges against Yingluck may be part of a process involving both bargaining and threats.

The tragedy, as this drifts on, is that Thailand is wasting time it can ill afford. Its economy is faltering just when it most needs growth. Its society is unsettled as the difficult moment when the country has to cope with the succession to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87 and not well, comes closer. Its relative position in the region is slipping, as is its relationship with its long-time ally, the United States. The attempt to fix the country’s political future should be abandoned. A return to democratic rule is overdue.

Delta gets ugly in its fight with Emirates

18 February 2015

The CEO of Delta Air Lines Inc. does not like the big three Middle East airlines. But his latest foot in mouth offering was offensive. It was also deliberate. Dick Andesron blamed 9/11 terrorists “from the Arabian Peninsula” for his company’s bankruptcy bailout in 2005.

In doing so he linked the airlines and their governments with the 9/11 terrorists.

“I’m a little bit concerned that Mr. Anderson crossed the line in some of the statements he made with regard to what went on with regard to 9/11,” President Tim Clark of Dubai-based Emirates Airline told CNN on Wednesday. “And I know that has caused great offense in this part of the world, and I’m sure will be dealt with at the governmental and state level.”

Anderson told CNN on Monday that he saw a “great irony” in airlines from the Arabian Peninsula criticizing U.S. aid to domestic carriers after the 2001 attacks since many of the hijackers hailed from the region.

Strangely a Delta partner in Skyteam is Saudi Arabian Airlines. Onwed by the Saudi government.

The heart of this dispute is that American Airlines, United Airlines and Atlanta-based Delta, the world’s biggest carriers, say their gulf rivals get unfair government subsidies. The U.S. trio is urging federal officials to consider curbs on Qatar, Emirates and Etihad under the USA's “Open Skies” treaties for overseas flying.

It is also about protecting feeder traffic into their alliance partner airlines.

Qatar CEO Akbar Al Baker scolded Anderson and reiterated the gulf airlines’ assertion that they aren’t subsidized. The Delta chief “should be ashamed to bring the issue of terrorism to try to cover his inefficiency in running an airline,” Al Baker said on CNN. “Mr. Anderson should be doing his job improving and competing with us instead of just crying wolf for his shortcomings in the way the airline is run.”

A longtime critic of gulf airlines’ business practices, Anderson and his U.S. peers stepped up their attacks recently by lobbying Obama administration officials to limit the carriers’ access to the U.S. They also compiled a 55-page document listing more than $40 billion in what they said were subsidies for the Middle East airlines.

This document does not appear to have been publicly released.

The Delta CEO rejected the idea that post-9/11 assistance amounted to a bailout and brought up the origins of the terrorists. “It’s a great irony to have the United Arab Emirates from the Arabian Peninsula talk about that, given the fact that our industry was really shocked by the terrorism of 9/11, which came from terrorists from the Arabian Peninsula that caused us to go through a massive restructuring,” said Anderson, 59.

Of the 19 hijackers aboard the four commandeered jets, 15 were from Saudi Arabia, two from the UAE and one each from Egypt and Lebanon. Qatar Airways is based in Doha, and Etihad is based in Abu Dhabi, which like Dubai is in the UAE. Etihad declined to comment on Anderson’s remarks this week.

Trying to calm the dispute Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton said in a statement after Anderson spoke that the CEO was only reacting to claims about U.S. subsidies for airlines. “He didn’t mean to suggest the gulf carriers or their governments are linked to the 9/11 terrorists,” Talton said. “We apologize if anyone was offended.”

It is one of the most insincere apologies.

Clark said he was “bemused” by the attack by U.S. airlines, and he said Emirates will “continue to draw business to points that currently the American carriers don’t serve, have never served, and probably never will serve. So why would you deny us that?”

Clark is being disingenuous. He knows that he is flying passengers from the USA not to Dubai but to points beyond Dubai - mainly in South Asia. In doing so he competes with all of the airline alliances that feed passengers from USA to European carriers and on into South Asia, the Far East, Africa etc.

Anderson claimed Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways were “not airlines, they are governments”. He said that "We have spent two years analysing their financials and we have found evidence of their actual financial statements from other places in the world that provide documented evidence that can’t be refuted of tens of billions of dollars of direct government subsidies."

Let us see the accusations in full. Anderson is essentially calling certain EK executives liars. Since the launch of Emirates, EK have maintained that the Government of Dubai granted a once-off $10 million loan to EK as start-up capital - which has since been repaid in dividends many times over. So Delta; it is time to publish your alleged evidence.

Anderson added that “the Middle East carriers, the UAE and Qatar cannot deny huge government subsidies. They’re a violation of the WTO [World Trade Organization] definition of subsidy and they’re a violation of US open skies agreements."

Emirates Airline subsequently rejected the lukewarm apology from Delta. Rejecting Delta's defence that CEO Richard Anderson had not meant what he said, Dubai-based Emirates left no room for error.

"We believe that the statements made this week by Mr Anderson were deliberately crafted and delivered for specific effect," Emirates said in a strongly-worded statement on Thursday.

"This brings into question his credibility as a CEO of a US public listed company, as well as the integrity of the submission which his airline has submitted to the US authorities.”

This argument has a long way to run.

Purging the Shinawatra clan

12 February 2015

Thailand's top court has ordered another key member of the embattled Shinawatra family to face trial, an official said Wednesday, as the wealthy but wildly divisive clan become further snared in legal challenges. Somchai Wongsawat - brother-in-law of deposed premiers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra - must appear before the Supreme Court on May 11 to enter a plea on criminal charges of abuse of power over a crackdown on a 2008 protest, a court official told AFP. He was prime minister at the time, but lasted just 80 days before a court removed him from office. Somchai has been tipped for a possible comeback as leader of the battered Shinawatra-aligned Puea Thai party, which was swept aside by a coup last May shortly after Yingluck was toppled by another court decision

The Supreme Court has accepted a lawsuit filed by the National Anti-Corruption Commission against former prime minister Somchai Wongsawat and three others over 2008’s crackdown on People's Alliance for Democracy protesters.

Of course the Court is not pursuing the Democrat led government for the killings of red shirt members, journalists and civilians at Ratchaprasong on 2010.

The court's Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions set the first hearing in the case against the ex-premier and Gen Chavalist Yongchaiyudh, the former deputy prime minister, Pol Gen Patcharawat Wongsuwonk, the former police chief, and Pol Lt Gen Suchart Muankaew, the former metropolitan police chief, for May 11.

In the suit, the four are accused of being responsible for the crackdown on PAD protesters who blocked the entrance to parliament. Two people were killed and 471 injured in the government action.

The Junta is slowly strangling Pheu Thai's leadership.

William Shatner to beam into Dubai

11 February 2015

Canadian born actor William Shatner, who rose to fame playing Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek series and 80s TV cop T. J. Hooker, has been announced as the big celebrity name set to appear at the annual Middle East Film and Comic Con (MEFCC) in April.

The three day event, celebrating pop culture from comics, film and television, will take place from April 9-11 at the Dubai World Trade Centre.

Joining the 83-year-old Shatner will be Karl Urban, best known as Éomer in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy in the two most recent Star Trek movies, and Judge Dredd in Dredd, along with Flash Gordon star Sam J. Jones.

Music will also be provided by Thirty Seconds to Mars, which is fronted by Oscar-winning actor Jared Leto. The band will make their Dubai debut as part of MEFCC on April 10.

Come to think of it if you were looking for alien lifeforms then Dubai is a good place to start.

Anwar Ibrahim jailed again

10 February 2015

So the Malaysian judiciary has once again jailed Anwar Ibrahim for an alleged offence that quite likely did not take place, with the flimsiest of evidence and using an archaic law that seems only to be used for the prosecution and persecution of the leader of the political opposition..

His five year sentence will be sufficient to ensure that he cannot contest the 2018 election; and given that he is already 72 years old this may be the effective end of his frontline political career.

Ibrahim was the bright, young, ambitions deputy prime minister in Dr. Mahathir's government 20 years ago. He may have become too ambitious too quickly. Dr Mahathir ceased to be a mentor and became a very powerful enemy and has remained so.

In 2013, despite an electoral system that is rigged against the opposition, Anwar came closer than ever to overthrowing the UNMHO ruling party who have been in charge since 1957.

But for 17 years Anwar has been fighting allegations and charges that sort primarily to limit his political influence.

Timeline: Anwar Ibrahim case

1998: Anwar Ibrahim appears in court and pleads not guilty to sodomy and corruption charges.

2000: Anwar convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison for sodomy.

2004: The sodomy verdict is overturned and Anwar is released from jail.

2008: Anwar fronts court and pleads not guilty to fresh accusations he sodomised a male aide.

2012: High Court acquits Anwar after judge ruled DNA evidence had been tampered with. The prosecutors file an appeal against the acquittal.

2014: The Court of Appeal overturns the acquittal a week before Anwar was to contest a state by-election he was expected to win.

2015: Anwar loses his final appeal against sodomy convictions and is sentenced to five years jail.

Just as a side note Malaysia’s criminal sodomy law, Section 377, was drawn from the Indian Penal Code of 1860 and imposed under British colonial rule. In 2009, India repealed its sodomy law. Malaysia has not done so.

Today's sentencing was a political calculation. Pro-Mahathir hardliners wanted Anwar buried as a political threat. Meabwhile the ruling party still trying to find somebody, anybody, anywhere, who believes this isn't politically motivated. Other than party loyalists they will not succeed.

Thailand’s generals should stand aside

8 February 2015 - The Financial TImes

In a year when there are elections in Myanmar, once the epitome of a tinpot dictatorship, it is ironic that neighbouring Thailand should now be more deserving of that description. No one can harbour illusions about the generals who seized power last May with the claim of restoring harmony to Thailand’s long-fractious political scene. It is now crystal clear, if it was not from the very outset, that the coup leaders are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha and his fellow military men have imposed a dictatorship only too willing to use the powers of the state to silence critics. True, his regime may not be killing people. But its attempts to quash the social forces unleashed more than a decade ago by the deeply flawed but still-popular Thaksin Shinawatra, former prime minister, are doomed to fail. Only a commitment to restore the country to representative government can begin to heal the deep social divisions that are eating away at Thailand’s body politic.

Sadly, this seems to be the last thing on the junta’s mind. Rather, the suspicion is it wants to stay in power long enough to oversee the delicate business of royal succession when King Bhumibol Adulyadej, ailing and 87, eventually dies. At the very least, it seeks to recast the rules such that politicians it considers irresponsibly populist can never be elected again. It is a vision of “managed democracy” that the harder-line generals in Myanmar would fully understand.

In a combative press conference, Gen Prayuth, head of the so-called National Council for Peace and Order, could not disguise his hatred of dissent. When one journalist asked about the detention of critics for “attitude adjustment”, he thundered back that it was inappropriate to challenge his “full power”. The journalist would be “summoned too if you keep asking questions like this”. If this is the junta’s public face, one hates to think what goes on in private.

The junta has also stepped up its war on Yingluck Shinawatra, former prime minister and sister of Mr Thaksin, a populist leader whose election in 2001 ended with a 2006 coup. The subsequent struggle between his supporters, many from the historically poorer northeast, and the urban elites and their allies triggered a political crisis still being played out.

The latest instalment came when the puppet parliament impeached Ms Yingluck and banned her from politics for five years. She faces up to a decade in prison for alleged criminal negligence over a rice subsidy scheme, which the junta says was a vote-buying ruse.

However wrong-headed the attempt artificially to prop up rice prices, the military government has dealt in anecdote and innuendo. So far, it has not proved the scheme was anything other than a policy it did not like. This looks like political vengeance, not the rule of law.

The government has support among the elite and business community who argue that it has restored stability. But stability built on repression is no stability at all. Western powers should now step up pressure on Thailand to hold elections as soon as possible. Daniel Russel, the top US official for east Asia, has made a start by delivering a sharp message to the junta. Thailand, he said, was losing credibility by not moving more quickly to end martial law.

The generals’ hopes to influence the course of future democratic exercises through fixing the rules are shabby and unworkable. The sooner they hand over power the better. Then it is for politicians to make their case — and for the people to decide.

Emirates' Clark strikes back in US open skies debate

7 February 2015 Flight Global

Emirates president Tim Clark has hit back at an effort by the three US mainline carriers to lobby the US government to roll back open skies with some Gulf nations, calling the airlines' allegations "sweeping and unfounded".

"I am surprised by reports that the three largest US carriers – each of which was a beneficiary of America’s unique Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganisation law - have presented a case against open skies access for some airlines including Emirates, based on claims of subsidies," says Clark in a statement to Flightglobal.

"As far as the airline industry is concerned, aeropolitical protection for airlines is arguably the biggest subsidy of all," he adds. "Therefore, it would be ironic, and a shame, if the US, who have been the forerunners of liberalisation and deregulation, would now contemplate a u-turn on its successful international aviation policies for the benefit of a narrow few, based on sweeping and unfounded subsidy allegations."

In late January, chief executives of Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines met with senior White House officials to persuade them to consider limiting the access of Gulf carriers to the USA. It is understood that the carriers are pushing the US government to review existing open skies deals with the countries of these Gulf airlines.

Delta says the three carriers have begun a discussion with the US government on "the impact of more than $40 billion of government subsidies and unfair benefits to state-owned Gulf airlines, specifically Emirates, Etihad and Qatar [Airways]".

In response to this, Clark says: "We are very interested to see how the figure of '$40 billion of government subsidies and benefits' was calculated. It is especially surprising because some of the complaining CEOs have publicly called for the US to emulate the pro-aviation growth policies of Dubai."

The three Gulf carriers have repeatedly denied charges that they benefit from state subsidies, and Clark reiterates this. "We have never received financial subsidies or bail-outs. We did receive start-up capital of $10 million in 1985 and a one-time infrastructure investment of $88 million for two Boeing 727 aircraft and a training building," he says.

"This investment has been more than repaid by dividend payments to the government of Dubai which total over $2.8 billion to date."

Etihad and Qatar Airways decline to comment on the move in Washington DC by the three US mainline carriers. The US Department of Transportation declines to comment on the meeting between the three US airline chief executives and secretary of transportation Anthony Foxx. The chief executives are also believed to have met with commerce secretary Penny Pritzker.

"For the United States government to be persuaded by a non-representative vocal minority that it should change course, particularly with regard to its Open Skies policy, makes absolutely no sense," says Clark.

The bid by the three US airlines for their government to reevaluate its open skies deals with certain Middle Eastern countries have attracted strong reactions. Mid-sized and smaller US airports that are not significantly dominated by a US mainline carrier have said that rolling back open skies could hurt new international service to the USA.

Delta, American and United have been backed in their efforts by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). The union says it is in favour of open skies “provided that partner nations’ airlines compete on commercial merit and do not benefit from unfair economic advantages in the marketplace”.

Among other US carriers, New York-based JetBlue Airways and FedEx have spoken out in favour of retaining US open skies policies. JetBlue is a codeshare partner with all three Gulf carriers - Emirates, Etihad and Qatar.

Southwest Airlines - the other major US carrier - has so far remained silent on the issue. US airline trade association Airlines For America has declined to comment, referring all questions to the three US mainline carriers.

Emirates operates to nine US cities non-stop from Dubai, and provides one-stop service to 60 other cities in the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific.

Clark says these are destinations "currently not served by American carriers, except perhaps via their alliance partners where routings are often relatively convoluted or inconvenient".

"Head-to-head, there are virtually no competitive overlaps between Emirates’ network and those of the three complaining US carriers," he adds.

The Dubai-based carrier has transported more than 10.7 million passengers on its US flights, and Clark estimates that the carrier's US operations have contributed more than $2.8 billion annually for the airports in New York, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago.
 

 

 

Dubai360 - opens the door but where are the people?

28 January 2015 www.dubai360.com

Last week while I was away in Thailand Dubai launched another of its big promotional projects - Dubai360 - an online interactive city tour. Maybe the first of its kind.

The website uses a combination of super high-resolution 360 degree panoramic photos, videos, maps and timelapses to give visitors a feel of what it’s like to stand on top of the tallest building in the world, float over The Palm Islands, take a ride on the Metro and sneak a peek inside some of the most luxurious hotels in the world.

Over 500,000 individual photographs were used for the project and it took a team of 30 designers, photographers and coders more than 18 months to complete with unprecedented access to the city’s landmarks.

It is good - but does it do enough?

Where are all the people? Where is the energy, life, work, play of the over 2 million people that live here?

Where are the thousands of workers that get their one day off a week and are playing cricket on makeshift pitches across the Emirate?

Where is the tour of the coffee shops of old Satwa?

Where are the folks that still build the old dhows?

Where are the mass of tour boats and their guests floating around the creek every night?

Where are the punters in the public areas at Meydan races?

Where are the often endless immigration queues at DXB airport?

It is soul-less. Another fine tribute to Dubai's bling; another fine tribute to modern architecture; another fine tribute to the remarkable pace of growth. But it is as though no one lives here.

So exactly who is the target audience? There are English and Arabic descriptions. But maybe there should also be Chinese and Russian as the source of signficant numbers to come to Dubai. and there are typos which always seems unforgivable in a high profile project.

The other catch is that with the pace of development in Dubai scenes can quickly become obsolete. The view off the roof of my tower in Business Bay is probably over a year old. The opear house is beginning to take shape as is the Dubai Mall extension.

It deserves a good look. And it needs a more detailed look from me. Part of my problem is that despite the fistfuls of dollars I pay to Du each month the timelapses still load very slowly.
 

Flights to Baghdad suspended after shooting

28 January 2015

Flights from the UAE to Baghdad have been suspended with immediate effect after a Flydubai aircraft was hit by small arms fire as it landed in the Iraqi capital.

The incident took place on Monday when the Dubai to Baghdad flight came in to land, Flydubai confirmed.

Emirates and Etihad said on Tuesday morning that all flights have been suspended due to “safety concerns”.

Local media reported that a sniper had fired on the aircraft on Monday night and that Baghdad Airport was shut down following the incident.

Local media reported that a child passenger had been injured but Flydubai said no passengers required medical attention.

Flydubai said bullet holes were discovered in the fuselage.

The statement said: “After landing at Baghdad International Airport (BGW) on 26 January 2015, damage to the aircraft fuselage consistent with small arms fire was discovered on Flydubai flight FZ 215.

“All the passengers disembarked normally through the jet bridge. No medical attention was required at the airport. Passengers from Baghdad to Dubai were accommodated on a replacement aircraft. An investigation is underway to establish what happened.”

An Emirates spokeswoman said: “Emirates can confirm that we are suspending our flights to and from Baghdad due to operational and safety concerns. This took effect from 26 January until further notice.

“Our services to other points in Iraq – Erbil and Basra continue to operate as scheduled. We remain committed to our customers in Iraq and hope to resume services to Baghdad as soon as operational conditions allow us to do so.

“Our customer service team is contacting affected customers to assist them with making alternative travel arrangements. We apologise for any inconvenience caused. Customers can also check emirates.com for the latest flight status.”

Etihad said the decision had been taken following a ban by the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority on Monday.

A statement on Etihad’s website said: “To comply with the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority ban on operation to and from Baghdad on security grounds, Etihad Airways has suspended all flights to the Iraqi city with immediate effect and until further notice.

“The safety of our customers and employees is always our first priority. We will continue to work closely with the authorities and monitor the security situation before recommencing scheduled services to Baghdad.”

Etihad said that cancellations and refunds are being offered.

Emirates continues to fly into Erbil and Basra.

Why the Greek result matters

27 January 2015 - The Economist

As one country after another on the periphery of the euro zone had to swallow painful reforms and fiscal austerity as the price for their bail-outs between 2010 and 2013, the surprise was that by and large they accepted the medicine without a large-scale populist revolt. But Sunday’s result in the Greek election marks a turning-point because Syriza, the radical-left party that has prevailed at the polls, campaigned on casting aside austerity, backtracking on the reforms and renegotiating the vast debt that Greece owes its European creditors. These policies are unacceptable to the euro-zone countries, especially Germany, that have lent Greece so much money. The outcome of the election could also have wider implications. Why does the Greek result matter?

A clash is impending because the Greeks see their recent history in a very different light from that of the Germans and other Europeans who have bailed them out. From the perspective of Northern creditor nations, Greece was the architect of its own misfortune by mismanaging its public finances on a staggering scale. It has been lent an astonishing amount of money in not just one but two bail-outs, amounting to €246 billion ($275 billion), worth more than the country’s entire economic output. From a Greek perspective, however, the country has suffered a calamitous decline in GDP, which at its low in late 2013 was 27% down on its pre-crisis peak. Harsh spending cuts and tax rises have been imposed again and again as conditions for further economic support. Greeks feel that they have lost control of their country, which is now instead being directed by the hated troika: the European Commission, the IMF and the European Central Bank.

Syriza won on Sunday because Alexis Tsipras, the party's leader, offered a message of hope to a country still in despair, even though the economy is now recovering. But the difficulty with his plan for Greece is that it requires other Europeans to finance it—or to countenance a reversal of reforms they regard as vital for Greece to cope with euro-zone membership. If Mr Tsipras makes good on promises of higher spending and lower taxes then Greece will fail to meet its objective of running a big primary budget surplus (ie, before interest payments), which would make it far harder to get its debt down from 175% of GDP. And if he reverses reforms such as the ones that have brought down wages, then Greece will head back towards the uncompetitive economic mess that, along with budgetary mismanagement, got it into trouble in the first place.

In the negotiations that will now occur between Mr Tsipras and Greece’s creditors, Germany will give little ground. Angela Merkel, too, must pay attention to domestic opinion, which would be hostile to any concessions. The German chancellor also has to reckon with the wider impact of any deal that appeared to reward Syriza in emboldening populist revolts in other countries in the euro area, notably in Spain. For any country to leave the euro will be destabilising because it would break the supposed irrevocability of membership. But if Mr Tsipras were to get his way then the euro area would become a club where borrowers rather than lenders called the shots, which would be unsustainable. That is why Mr Tsipras will, before long, face a difficult choice between backing down on his demands—or presiding over a ruinous Greek exit.

The Royal Road to Ruin

26 January 2015 The Economist

In Thailand, strict lèse-majesté laws pose the gravest threat to free expression

Although lèse-majesté laws remain on the books in many constitutional monarchies, prosecutions are rare. Thailand is an exception: it enforces them far more assiduously than any other country since Japan canned rules protecting its emperor after the second world war. Anyone who "defames, insults or threatens" the King, his heir, the Queen or a regent risks between three and 15 years in jail. For decades, the number of cases averaged around ten a year, but since 2004, they have soared to several hundred each year, as friction between Thailand's populist governments and its traditional ruling establishment has erupted into conflict.

Lèse-majesté complaints are a common way of harassing political rivals. A surge of new cases followed last May's military coup. Anyone can report an offence, and it is not only speech that breaks the rules. In 2011 a 61-year-old received a 20-year sentence for sending four offensive text messages; he denied the charges and died in prison the following year. People who fail to stand for the royal anthem, still played before most film screenings, or deface banknotes, which bear the King's image, have fallen foul of the law. In December complaints of lèse-majesté were made against a woman who wore black clothes on the eve of the King's birthday. In 2008 a series of charges against the BBC included the complaint that its website had allowed the King's image to appear below that of a politician.

Foreigners who break the lèse-majesté law are often swiftly deported, but in recent years more of them have served jail terms. In 2007 Oliver Jufer, a Swiss national, received a ten-year sentence for defacing pictures of the King while drunk (he was pardoned after a month). Shortly afterwards an Australian, Harry Nicolaides, spent more than a year behind bars because one paragraph in a self-published novel contained an unflattering description of the crown prince. In 2012 Joe Gordon, a Thai American, spent seven months in prison for translating excerpts of "The King Never Smiles", an English-language biography of the King that is banned in Thailand.

In 2005 King Bhumibol warned supporters that over-zealous implementation of lèse-majesté laws could create problems for the monarchy. The palace regularly issues pardons, particularly if cases are well-publicised and miscreants apologetic, but the volume of prosecutions is moving upwards, all the same. Hard-liners argue that criticism of lèse-majesté laws is itself a crime, which is one reason the plague is so difficult to stop. And cases are poorly covered in the media, for fear of repeating the offence.

In theory the death of King Bhumibol, who is 87 years old, could provide a window for reform. It is more likely that fears about the monarchy's future will prompt the courts to crack down even harder.

Yingluck's farcical impeachment; and now, criminal charges

24 January 2015

Thai authorities have banned former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office for five years and launched a legal case that could see her jailed for up to ten years.  The impeachment sends a strong signal that there will be no compromise and her family will be removed from politics.

An army-appointed - national legislative assembly - impeached her over corruption in a scheme she oversaw to subsidise rice farmers.

The impeachment process was more show trial than legal proceeding: All the members of the assembly were handpicked by the junta, and the military cannot explain how someone who is no longer in power could be impeached. So they applied the penalty retroactively.

For the NCPO this is something of a public relations disaster. They have promised national reconciliation. But Yingluck had to be found guilty to appease the Democrats and the Suthep led PRDC. The last thing the junta leader needed was a coup to remove a coup. How he must wish that Yingluck had simply taken flight and left Thailand.

In this analysis it suggests that the biggest loser from this impeachment process is in fact General Prauth - he simply looks like a pawn of the elite - like General Sonthi back in 2006. The decision may also discredit General Prawit who appears to have been seeking a deal with Thaksin Shinawatra. No deal is possible now.

For the members of the Bangkok establishment who last year led the takeover of government buildings and called for a hiatus of democracy, Friday presented them with a moment of jubilation.

Akanat Promphan, a leader of last year’s protests, hailed the “bravery” of the junta’s assembly and said the vote would “set the standard of morality of Thai politicians in the future.”

Bravery? What else were they to do.

But for Ms. Yingluck’s supporters, a political movement that has won every election since 2001, this was confirmation that the military was out to destroy their movement and side with the Bangkok establishment accustomed to calling the shots.

“We are fighting on a battlefield owned by dictators,” said Reungkrai Leekitwattana, a member of Ms. Yingluck’s party, on a satellite television channel sympathetic to the movement.
The members of the assembly who impeached Ms. Yingluck “are not the representatives of the people,” he said.

The power struggle in Thailand has always been more complicated than rich versus poor or democrats versus autocrats. But the threat of imprisonment could turn Yingluck into the most unlikely martyr and a symbol of democratic struggle rather than simply another elite caught up in Thailand's power struggle.

Economists considered the rice program wasteful, and the program infuriated members of the Bangkok establishment, who resented that their taxes were being transferred to farmers.
The anger over the policy exemplified the difference in priorities between the urban establishment and Ms. Yingluck’s iconoclastic, rural-based political movement.

Ms. Yingluck has defended the rice subsidy program as assistance for the poor. “Many governments have public policies to help farmers,” she said in testimony at the impeachment hearings. “It’s the government’s duty to look after them.”

The point of the program, she said, was “reducing the gap between the rich and the poor, reducing social disparity.” The rice subsidies, which caused the government to borrow heavily, benefited the rural constituencies that form the core support of Ms. Yingluck’s party.

Shortly after her impeachment, Ms Yingluck was due to hold a news conference at a Bangkok hotel. But troops arrived and prevented her from speaking.

Thailand is still under martial law and unauthorised political meetings are banned.

Ms Yingluck has since posted a statement (in Thai) on her Facebook page accusing the authorities of trying to destroy her.

"Democracy has died in Thailand today, along with the rule of law," she said.

Those advocating impeachment argued that it had nothing to do with politics or reconciliation. They argue that it should be understood purely as a response to corruption in the Yingluck government's rice support scheme.

But no-one has yet been tried or convicted of corruption in relation to the scheme. It was expensive, it was mismanaged, some people no doubt took advantage. But what exactly was Yingluck guilty of beyond trusting her ministers to do their job. History is riddled with governments using financial schemes and differential taxation to gain the support of an electorate.

The best summary is from Jonathan Head at the BBC who simply noted that: "this was not about corruption, or the rule of law. It was the culmination of eight months of lobbying by hard-line opponents of the Shinawatra family, who want them purged from politics, and eight months of hesitation by military rulers who had some hopes of being seen as saviours, delivering the nation from political turmoil."

Ms Yingluck faces the same fate as her brother - jail or exile. To her credit and to the Junta's dismay it looks like she will stay in Thailand and fight. That can only galvanise her supporters.


The Guardian view on Saudi Arabia after King Abdullah’s death

24 January 2015 The Guardian

The House of Saud is one of the biggest and most successful family businesses in the world and, as in any business, much depends on the CEO. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz was a skilful manager of his awkward country after he took over as effective regent in 1995, when King Fahd was disabled by a stroke.

He was adept at steering the contentious princely clan at the top of the Saudi system, many of whose members have less access to privilege and power than the stereotypes suggest. He was good, if slow, at accommodating the growing class of educated commoners whose allegiance, and satisfaction, are vital if Saudi Arabia is to become a modern industrial economy. He was successful in defeating a major internal Islamist threat in the shape of al-Qaida. He also took action, belatedly and still far from completely, on the export of Wahhabi extremism and the funding of Islamist movements abroad by Saudi individuals and groups, the worst aspect of the dangerous double life long led by the Saudi state. He moved just a little, but still perceptibly, on political matters, widening consultation slightly and introducing elections to municipal councils. He was, in other words, not a bad man, and his reign illustrates the argument that parts of the princely elite are more liberal, in a very broad sense of that word, than much of the rest of Saudi society and than its religious establishment.

The proof of this good management came with the Arab spring, when many saw Saudi Arabia as ripe for the kind of change that at that time seemed to presage a new democratic future for many countries in the region. But the country weathered the storm with surprising ease, indeed emerging to become an arbiter in the internal conflicts that followed in the nations where regime change had taken place. The wisdom of that foreign policy, whether in Syria, Egypt, or Libya, is very debatable, but it is nevertheless the expression of a relatively strong state.

Yet at the end of Abdullah’s reign Saudi Arabia is still a country where terrible and deplorable things happen. It is a country where a young man can be sentenced to repeated floggings because he put forward moderately worded arguments on freedom of thought. It is a country where women cannot drive a car, a country without a single non-Muslim place of worship, even though many who work there are Christians or Hindus, and a country where corruption, grand and petty, remains a serious problem. It is, finally, still a country a long way from dealing with the contradictions that will undoubtedly undermine its ambitions if they are not at least partly resolved. Saudi Arabia cannot be the economic powerhouse it wants to be without enfranchising its educated professionals, on the way to fuller political participation for all. It cannot flourish, given its demographics, without meeting the aspirations of its youth and without allowing the half of the population that is female the right to work, among other rights, if they wish to do so. And it cannot be a state open to the world, which its large expatriate community at home and the large number of its students and businessmen abroad dictate it should be, if it continues to act as if everything foreign is in some way toxic.

The new ruler, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, is thought to be in bad health. Both he and his crown prince, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, are old. Although age has never been a disqualification in this long-lived family, the name that may turn out to matter more is that of Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. Young by Saudi standards, he is a nephew of Abdullah and the first of the grandsons and great-nephews of Ibn Saud to have an opportunity to rule.

Whatever the exact dynastic sequence turns out to be, the Saudi royal family has work to do. Their nation was founded on two enormous pieces of luck. The first was that the British chose to look the other way as Ibn Saud rounded out his kingdom in the 1920s. The second was oil, swiftly parlayed into an alliance with the United States that has endured ever since. But the oil revenues are no longer enough to sustain a state that has historically contained its problems by throwing money at them. Saudi Arabia needs to move down the new path that King Abdullah very tentatively explored both more swiftly and more surely than in the past.

Too sick to work?

16 January 2015

I am too sick to work...so come in and prove it. And then you will get a sick certificate. That is the new rule for cabin crew at my wife's employer.

An organisation that does not trust its staff to behave like adults is on a slippery downward path...the trouble is that there have always been a few crew at Emirates who will call sick because they want an extra day off or dot feel like a 3am turn to Hyderabad. They know that there are reserve crew who can fly in their place so they abuse the system. And then everyone suffers.

A note on PPRUNE said that "Over 400 cc called in sick today. Cc were called out on days off to cover. Pandamonium!" (sic)

A Swiss forex shocker

15 January 2015

The Swiss National Bank lobbed a bombshell into the global currency markets as it gave up defending the Swiss franc against investors desperate for a safe haven against the eurozone debt crisis.

It ditched its three-year-old cap of Swfr1.20 against the euro, imposed to stave off the invasion of cash-seeking protection from turbulent markets.

Within seconds, the "Swissie" soared nearly 30 per cent against the single currency with one investor describing the move as "like detonating a stick of dynamite in a dam".

The pound also plunged, along with all other major currencies.

Steve Woodcock, head of trading at TradeNext, said: "It’s the biggest move I’ve seen in a 30-year career as a trader."

Some analysts speculated that the sudden U-turn in Switzerland’s previous policy meant the SNB had got wind of an even bigger blast of quantitative easing money printing from the European Central Bank than was expected next week.

Only on Monday, the SNB’s vice chairman, Jean-Pierre Danthine, said the cap would remain the cornerstone of Swiss monetary policy.

But the growing crisis in the eurozone meant the flood of cash kept on coming, making it evermore difficult to sustain the cap.

Last month, the SNB was forced to take further measures to defend itself by imposing negative interest rates, effectively meaning investors had to pay to lodge cash in the country.

In an effort to soften the impact of removing the currency cap today, the SNB slashed interest rates even further, by half a percentage point to minus 0.75 per cent.

The SNB said that linking the Swiss franc to the euro meant the currency had fallen dangerously far against the dollar.

"In these circumstances the SNB concluded that enforcing and maintaining the minimum exchange rate for the Swiss franc against the euro is no longer justified," it explained.

Simon Smith, chief economist at currency dealer FxPro, said: "The Swiss central bank has decided this is a battle it can’t win given the ECB is likely to do QE next week or at least in March."

He added that “pressure had been building” on the currency cap due to the swissie’s traditional status as a safe haven.

"But at this point in time, the SNB has broken a dam wall and the waters have flooded out."

Foreign exchange expert Gain Capital’s research director, Kathleen Brooks, added: "If the SNB is so spooked it is disbanding with a policy that it has held dear since 2011, then the rest of the market may want to reconsider their expectations for next week’s ECB meeting."

The Euro is now under serious pressure.

How bad was it - well this is the 16 January announcement from UK forex broker Alpari:

"The recent move on the Swiss franc caused by the Swiss National Bank’s unexpected policy reversal of capping the Swiss franc against the euro has resulted in exceptional volatility and extreme lack of liquidity. This has resulted in the majority of clients sustaining losses which has exceeded their account equity. Where a client cannot cover this loss, it is passed on to us. This has forced Alpari (UK) Limited to confirm today, 16/01/15, that it has entered into insolvency. Retail client funds continue to be segregated in accordance with FCA rules. - See more at: http://www.alpari.co.uk/client-updates/notifications/posts/2015/january/important-announcement#sthash.u9m1x4Iv.dpuf"

Presence at Paris rally of leaders with poor free press records is condemned

12 January 2015 Reporters Without Borders singles out the leaders of Egypt, Russia, Turkey, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates - The Guardian

Press freedom campaigners condemned the presence of world leaders attending the unity rally in Paris on Sunday who have poor records on human rights and the free press in their home countries.

Reporters Without Borders singled out leaders from Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as being responsible for particularly harsh environments for journalists. These countries rank respectively 159th, 154th, 148th, 121st and 118th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom in a league table compiled by the group.

“We should show solidarity with Charlie Hebdo without forgetting the world’s other ‘Charlies’,” said Christophe Deloire, secretary general of the campaign group. “It would be intolerable [if] representatives from countries that reduce their journalists to silence profit from this emotional outpouring to … improve their international image … We should not allow the predators of the press to spit on the graves of Charlie Hebdo.”

About 40 world leaders gathered in Paris to take part in the massive rally. France’s president, François Hollande, the British prime minister, David Cameron and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, walked arm in arm with other leaders at the start of the march.

Also invited were the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Sheikh Abdallah ben Zayed al-Nahyan of the UAE and the foreign ministers of Egypt, Russia and Algeria: Sameh Choukry, Sergei Lavrov, and Ramtane Lamamra.

Nearly 70 journalists are being prosecuted in Turkey for referring to corruption allegations against close associates of the former prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is now the president.

In Egypt 16 journalists, including three from al-Jazeera, are in jail. The al-Jazeera journalists have been held since December 2013 for “spreading false news” and “membership of a terrorist organisation”.

The al-Jazeera journalists include Peter Greste, formerly of the BBC, who has lodged paperwork with the Egyptian government seeking his own deportation. But his release from prison could be weeks or months away, as the new presidential power to deport foreign prisoners is tested for the first time.

A member of Greste’s Australian legal team said the jailed journalist’s application was “among the first” to petition the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, for deportation.

Several Russian journalists have been imprisoned, often in Siberia, and two NGOs that support the media have been added to an official list of “foreign agents”, a term used to stigmatise bodies that receive foreign funding and are suspected of “political activity”. In December, 20 activists including Masha Alyokhina from Pussy Riot were arrested in Moscow, after staging an all-night protest against the conviction of Alexei Navalny, a critic of the Kremlin, and his brother Oleg.

Algeria bans marches and public protests, prompting the Algérie-Focus website to say: “Marches and public protests are banned in Algeria, but Algerian ministers have the right to march in the streets of … Paris!”

*************************
As an addendum the world leaders did not so much lead the parade as conduct their own photo-op at some distance from the parade - pseudo-solidarity said one smart commentator. See more details in this Independent article.

Beaucoup de chefs de gouvernement mondiaux ne sont pas Charlie

9 January 2015

It is the first time since the Libération of Paris in 1944 that so many people have taken to the streets of Paris, and the first time so many world leaders have congregated in one place in what is essentially a show of solidarity and condolence with France. The massed crowds were wonderful. The leaders less so.

On a political and diplomatic level, is was certainly unusual: there were around 60 presidents, prime ministers, world leaders, statesmen and women travelling by bus from the Elysée palace to the 11th arrondissement of Paris.

To put this into perspective, last year, to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, a total of 19 world leaders went to Normandy.

On a human level, it was a massive outpouring of national grief, solidarity and defiance. People turned out en masse not only to show their respect for the 17 victims of the three terrorist attacks last week, but their support for the values of the Republique “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

A huge area of Paris was in lock down with possibly a million people gathered in Place de la Republique and Place de la Nation and along the 3 km march route.

There were marches and vigils in most French cities and also across Europe.

Yet these 60 world leaders hijacked today's unity march. There message of unity reeked of hypocricy.

There was one nation notably absent - the USA: President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Sec. of State John Kerry. Actually that is no bad thing. The USA tends to take over these events; their security requirements are simply massive - too much for this rally at such short notice and actually, not everything resolves around the USA.

But just why were so many leaders where there other than for their own political capital - this was an event for the people, Not an event for certain leaders to be seen to be attending. And the very idea that some of these leaders have any belief in or acceptance of press and personal freedoms as defined in three wonderful words by the French is basically risible.

So who was there:

EUROPE
French president François Hollande
German chancellor Angela Merkel
British prime minister David Cameron
Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi
Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy
Romanian president Klaus Iohannis
European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker
European parliament president Martin Schulz
EU president Donald Tusk
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg
Polish prime minister Ewa Kopacz
Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt
Belgian prime minister Charles Michel
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte
Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras
Irish prime minister Enda Kenny
Portuguese prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho
Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka
Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico
Latvian prime minister Laimdota Straujuma
Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán
Croatian prime minister Zoran Milanović
Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel
Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat
Slovenian prime minister Miro Cerar
Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven
Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko
Swiss president Simonetta Sommaruga
Kosovo president Atifete Jahjaga
Albanian prime minister Edi Rama
Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu
Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg
Georgian prime minister Irakli Garibashvili
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov
Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz

NORTH AMERICA

USA's Ambassador to France
Canadian public safety minister Steven Blaney

MIDDLE EAST

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman
Jordanian King Abdullah II and Queen Rania
Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas
United Arab Emirates foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan
Qatari Sheikh Mohammed Ben Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani
Bahrain foreign minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa and prince Abdullah Bin Hamad al-Khalifa

AFRICA

Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta
Gabonese president Ali Bongo
Niger president Mahamadou Issoufou
Benin president Thomas Boni Yayi
Tunisian prime minister Mehdi Jomaa
Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra

You cannot count the number but it was estimated that one million Parisiens took to the streets to claim their right to liberty, fraternity and equality.

But let's talk about press freedoms in some of the countries whose leaders attended the Paris rally today...

The notes are from the US State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013

Apparently the Saudi Arabian ambassador to France was in attendance representing a state that is giving blogger Raif Badawi 1000 lashes?

Marching right next to Francois Hollande: Ali Bongo of Gabon, who recently "suspended" 3 newspapers. 1 for satire.

In the United Arab Emirates "the law prohibits criticism of rulers and speech that may create or encourage social unrest..."

In Turkey "the penal code and antiterror law contain multiple articles that restrict freedom of the press."

In Tunisia "speech considered offensive to local sensibilities continued to be treated as criminal."

In Russia In 2013 "the government instituted several laws that restrict freedom of speech."

In Niger in February 2013 "police beat journalists covering protests by a teachers’ trade union...Authorities took no...action."

In Mali  "the constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, but the government restricted press freedom."

In Jordan "the law permits punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment for insulting the king, slandering the gov..."

In Israel "news printed or broadcast abroad is subject to security censorship."

In Georgia in 2013 "there were credible reports that the government at times did not adequately protect freedom of speech."

In Gabon the "government suspended several newspapers & TV stations during the year for disrupting public order or libel."

In the Ukraine the "government did not uniformly respect the rights of freedom of speech & press provided by the constitution and law."

In Croatia "the law provides for no less than six months’ and no more than five years’ imprisonment for hate speech."

In Bulgaria "the penal code provides for one to four years’ imprisonment for incitement to 'hate speech.'

In Benin "the government occasionally inhibited freedom of the press."

In Algeria "Individuals were not able to criticize the government publicly."

And even in France there are restrictions on "offending the dignity of the republic”... include "insulting" anyone who serves the public. In addition it is an offense to insult the national flag or anthem, with a penalty of a maximum 9,000 euro or up to 6 months' imprisonment.

Beaucoup de chefs de gouvernement mondiaux ne sont pas Charlie

Charlie Hebdo: Don’t blame this bloodshed on France’s Muslims

8 January 2015 Nabila Ramdani in The Guardian

Those of us trying to make sense of the Charlie Hebdo massacre need to understand the bloody history of my home city, Paris. That four hugely popular cartoonists were considered legitimate targets by murderers said to have been living within a few miles of the Louvre and other global symbols of liberal Gallic civilisation doesn’t seem possible: donnish satirists are not meant to be gunned down in quaint Paris arrondissements any more than municipal policemen used to dealing with traffic and tourists.

Sadly, the French capital has been associated with some of the worst barbarism in human history.

The Terror started by the 1789 Revolution led to tens of thousands of deaths, with many of its victims guillotined in front of vengeful crowds. Savage mass murders continued on squares and boulevards throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, through the Commune and two world wars, the second of which saw tens of thousands of Jews persecuted before being sent to their deaths in concentration camps. Postwar, many of the Gestapo-trained gendarmes involved in the those atrocities showed a fresh brutality to Algerians displaced by their own nation’s fight for independence from France.

The three French-Algerian men believed responsible for the 12 deaths in Paris on Wednesday would have been steeped in a recent history of this conflict which, in the 1960s, was exported from the battlefields of Algeria to Paris itself. During one notorious atrocity in 1961, up to 200 Algerians were slaughtered around national monuments, including the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame cathedral. Many were tossed into the Seine from some of the most beautiful bridges in the world and left to drown.

Half a century on, the violence has subsided but there is still a strong sense of resentment among alienated communities living in housing estates on the outskirts of the capital. Many are Muslims of north African origin who complain that discrimination against them extends to every field of life, from housing and employment to the right to religious expression. This is particularly so as politicians of the left and right regularly blame Islam for these social problems, which in fact have nothing to do with spiritual faith.

Anti-religious hate speech has thus become all too prevalent in modern France, as it is manipulated for political purposes. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front, is a convicted racist and antisemite, and his daughter, Marine Le Pen, the party’s current leader, regularly stigmatises Muslims and other minority groups.

Immigration policy underpins all of this discourse. Manuel Valls, the reactionary Socialist prime minister, infamously portrayed Roma gypsies as a group who cannot integrate and who should be deported back to Romania and Bulgaria, despite being EU citizens. This was followed by a number of violent attacks on Roma, while a right-wing mayor blocked the burial of a Roma baby in a municipal cemetery last week.

There is no doubt that Charlie Hebdo’s notorious cartoons satirising the prophet Muhammad saddened and angered Muslims in equal measure. When the magazine published a cover with a bearded and turbaned cartoon figure of the prophet saying “100 lashes if you’re not dying of laughter” in 2011, their offices were firebombed.

Other images and articles were also vindictive, including some about the other major monotheistic religions, Christianity and Judaism, but it was Islam that the Hebdo team always really had in its sights. Its murdered editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, regularly expressed his disdain for this religion. Such prejudice was in fact condemned by the White House in September 2012, when a spokesman for President Obama questioned the judgment of Charlie Hebdo for publishing “images that will be deeply offensive to many and have the potential to be inflammatory”. Richard Prasquier, head of France’s Jewish council, also said he disapproved of the caricatures because they constituted a “form of irresponsible panache”.

The climate of intolerance across France may well have been something Charlie Hebdo was reflecting, rather than creating, but strict laws banning hate literature would certainly have made many of its past issues unpublishable in countries including the UK. Comparisons between Private Eye, the British satirical weekly, and Charlie Hebdo have been made recently, but actually they are wrong: the self-styled “nasty” French magazine produces a far darker form of satire.

The sacred point, however, is that none of this in any way justifies violence, let alone the horrific slaughter this week. The vast majority of French Algerians and, indeed, Muslims across the world, were shocked and appalled by the murders, with a spokesman for the French Council of the Muslim Faith speaking of a “barbaric act against humanity, democracy and freedom of the press”.

Hassen Chalghoumi, imam of the mosque in Drancy – scene of those Holocaust deportations during the Nazi occupation – spoke up for many when he said of the killers: “They have sold their souls to hell. This is not freedom. This is not Islam and I hope the French will come out united at the end of this.”

Two of the dead – Ahmed Merabet, a police officer, and Mustapha Ourad, who was working in the Charlie Hebdo office – were themselves Muslim. Many fellow Muslims were among the crowds that poured on to the streets on Wednesday night in a show of solidarity for the Charlie Hebdo victims, rallying behind President Hollande’s call for national unity.

Despite all this, the seemingly inevitable backlash has begun, with mosques being targeted. Blank grenades were thrown at one in Le Mans on Wednesday night, with bullet holes also found in its windows. Shots were fired at a Muslim prayer hall near Narbonne, in the south of France, while an explosion close to a mosque in Villefranche-sur-Saône was described by a local prosecutor as a “criminal act”.

As the history of Paris shows, extreme violence often inspires further violence. The bloody cycle continues, just as it has always done. But attributing its causes to millions of law-abiding French Muslims is as cynical as trying to blame it on a small group of artists and writers.

French Humor, Turned Into Tragedy

The Attack on Charlie Hebdo and the Tradition of Parisian Wit

8 January 2015 from the New York Times

In September 2012, the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, defying the advice of the French government, published several lewd caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

I was in Tunis that week. There were tanks and soldiers outside the mosques, and graffiti in English, French and Spanish calling for revolution, declaring war on the West and all those who hated Islam. A few days earlier the United States Embassy in Tunis had been attacked, and the American School burned down. And shortly before that, the American ambassador to Libya had been murdered by a jihadist militia.

I spent a tense half-hour on the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, trying in vain, as a lone and very visible European, to hail a taxi before the curfew took effect. I cursed Charlie Hebdo for its willful and unnecessary provocations over the years: In 2006, the newspaper reprinted cartoons mocking Muhammad that had first appeared in a Danish newspaper, and in 2011, its offices were firebombed after it published a spoof issue, “Charia Hebdo,” a play on the word for Shariah law.

But, like everyone else in Paris, where I live, I was shocked to the core when I heard about the killings of 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a 20-minute walk from my own office, on Wednesday morning.

I first became aware that something was wrong when I noticed heavily armed police officers and soldiers at every corner and cars being towed by military vehicles. I stopped for coffee on the Rue de Grenelle and everybody was talking at once and staring at the TV as it showed footage of the massacre, in which two police officers were killed, as well as the magazine’s editorial director, Stéphane Charbonnier, and several cartoonists.

“This is just another stage,” the guy next to me said.

“Another stage in what?” I said.

“The war against the Arabs,” he replied.

It has to be said that Charlie Hebdo is an unlikely victim of such unjustified violence. For most Parisians these days, the magazine is a quaint relic of the ’60s and ’70s that has long since lost its power to shock. Only the day before the killings, I had noticed on a newsstand a recent front cover of the magazine that showed a goofy-looking Virgin Mary giving birth to an even goofier-looking Christ. I shrugged and walked on, reflecting on how few people read the magazine these days, how it had only just begun to overcome its money troubles, and what a museum piece it had become.

To some extent, this was reflected in the ages of two prominent figures who were killed: the brilliant and much-loved cartoonists Jean Cabut (or Cabu) and Georges Wolinski were, respectively, 76 and 80. Most important, they belonged to the generation of May 1968 — the generation that had revolted against the heavy hand of Charles de Gaulle’s paternalism with a belief in unlimited liberty, unrestrained sexual behavior, drug taking and, above all, the freedom to mock all forms of moral and religious authority.

Charlie Hebdo’s relentless pursuit of provocation — or “la provoc” in slangy French — belongs to a very Parisian tradition. It dates to before the French Revolution, when it was termed “L’esprit frondeur,” or “slingshot wit.” (A “fronde” was a catapult used to hurl stones at the king in times of insurrection.)

What also made Charlie Hebdo, founded in 1970, so French was a militant, aggressive secularism. This again is an old tradition in French culture — historically, a way of policing the power of the Catholic Church. May ’68 was also the revolt of the young against the old, and anti-religious satire a key part of that revolt.

But in contemporary France, the young rebels of ’68 have long since become the cultural establishment, even if they still espouse the leftist and libertarian ideals of their younger days. Charlie Hebdo, for all its vaunted anarchism, has been a member of the establishment for a very long time.

Or at least this is how the magazine is viewed out in the banlieues — the enormous and often wretched suburbs that surround all major French cities and that are home to a huge immigrant population, mainly from former French colonies in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. What is seen in the center of Paris as tweaking the nose of authority — religious or political — is seen out in the banlieues as the arrogance of those in power who can mock what they like, including deeply held religious beliefs, perhaps the only part of personal identity that has not been crushed or assimilated into mainstream French society.

What was gunned down on Wednesday in Paris was a generation that believed foremost in the freedom to say what you like to whomever you like. Parisians pride themselves on what they call “gouaille,” a kind of cheeky wit, based on free thinking and a love of provocation, that always stands in opposition to authority.

The awful killings are the direct opposite of all that: the merciless massacre of the Parisian mind.

Andrew Hussey is a professor of cultural history and dean of the University of London’s Institute in Paris. He is the author, most recently, of “The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs.”

Trying to make sense of the Paris murders

8 July 2015

Dave Pope's pointed cartoon sent with the following twitter message: "Can't sleep tonight, thoughts with my French cartooning colleagues, their families and loved ones "
 

Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, was attacked by gunmen yesterday, with 12 people killed. Editor Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier and prominent cartoonists Jean “Cabu” Cabut, Georges Wolinski and Bernard “Tignous” Verlhac were among those confirmed dead.

These were well known cartoonists; household names in France; celebrated for their art in a country that embraces anarchy and that celebrates their liberty, democracy and equality with a very active, diverse and politically engaged media.

Mustapha Ourrad, a Charlie Hebdo copy editor of Algerian descent who was among the victims. He is a Muslim.

Attending a weekly editorial meeting they were shot at point blank range by two heavily-armed, trained attackers working to a clear plan. The killers carried out their lethal mission with military precision. They sought out the cartoonists by name before executing them and turning their guns on the others.

Then as the attackers left they shot and wounded a policeman who raising his hands and pleading not to be shot they then executed with a close range shot. All captured on security cameras.

It was a sophisticated attack by well trained killers suggesting that they had powerful backers. The killers are still at large.

Charlie Hebdo was first established in 1970 following the state censorship of its staunchly anti-establishment predecessor Hara-Kiri magazine, which was banned after appearing to mock the death of former president Charles de Gaulle.

The left-wing magazine publishes weekly and came to international prominence in 2011 after its offices were fire-bombed and it had its website hacked.

It frequently pokes fun at the extreme right-wing and at all religions. Its depiction of the prophet Mohamed was the reason behind the 2011 attack.

The following year, its publication of another series of lewd cartoons depicting Mohamed prompted the French government to close embassies and schools in 20 countries.

Following that controversy, late editor Charbonnier told the news channel iTELE: “We do caricatures of everyone, and above all every week, and when we do it with the Prophet, it’s called provocation.”

All satire is intended to be provocative. Charlie Hebdo's cartoons regularly targeted Islam. Depicting the prophet Muhammed is But that is no excuse for yesterday's murders. But it does explain why Charlie Hedbo was targeted.

For all the tub-thumping the reality us that this was death delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades.

It would be easy to suggest that the murders are the result of France’s failure to assimilate two generations of Muslim immigrants from its former colonies. Or they are due to French military action against the Islamic State in the Middle East, or the American invasion of Iraq before that. T

And nor can they be understood and accepted as a reaction to disrespect of Islam by irresponsible cartoonists.

The same extremism, the same shock tactics, the same rule by fear murdered three thousand people in the U.S. on September 11, 2001, has brought mass rape and slaughter to the cities and deserts of Syria and Iraq; has massacred a hundred and thirty-two children and thirteen adults in a school in Peshawar last month and regularly kills so many Nigerians, especially young ones, that hardly anyone pays attention.

There has been a significant surge in Islamist killing around the world. These deaths no not avenge perceived insults to Islam. And we should not alienate the millions of Muslims who dislike what’s being done in the name of their religion. Many of them immediately condemned the attack on Charlie Hebdo, in tones of anguish particular to those whose deepest beliefs have been tainted.

The killers yesterday waged war against freedom of thought and speech, against tolerance and pluralism. A war against the values that are part of a democratic society.

Jihadists kill because that is what they do. It does not matter if you are a French cartoonist or a Yezidi child, or an aid worker or journalist. Provocation is merely an excuse used by bullies to justify their actions, while seeking to force the world to bow to their will.

In October last year, imprisoned Syrian journalist Mazen Darwish managed to smuggle a note from his Damascus cell to the free speech charity English PEN. Darwish had been singled out for an award by PEN and Salman Rushdie, and he took the opportunity to address Rushdie directly, writing:

“[W]e committed an unforgivable sin in the Arab world when we responded with indifference to the fatwas and calls for your death. So indifferent were we that we colluded – even if just by our silent complicity – in excluding and eliminating difference, while acting as if the whole thing had nothing to do with us. And so here we are today, paying the high, bloodsoaked price of that collusion, and finding ourselves the main victims of the obscurantist ideology now infiltrating our homes and our cities.

What a great shame that it has taken us all of this bloodshed to arrive at the belief that we are the ones who will pay the price for preventing those with whom we disagree from expressing their views – and that we will pay with our lives and our futures. What a shame this much blood has had to be spilled for us to realise, finally, that we are digging our own graves when we allow thought to be crushed by accusations of unbelief, calling people infidels, and when we allow opinion to be countered with violence.”

With all of that said; deliberate provocation seeks out a reaction. And that is the risk. That in justifying our own freedoms we may simply be contributing to greater polarisation and alienation.

At what point does free press become hate press? At what point does humour turn into vitriol?

All I know is that we live in a more dangerous world. We live in a world where extremists have created a security paranoia and have allowed governments to remove so many of the freedoms that have been fought for for centuries. And the trouble with extremists is that they desire and they create more extremists and breed instability and fear.

We are not afraid was a strong and welcome message overnight in Paris. So for today show solidarity with the victims of this terror by demanding justice. That is defiance. I am not convinced that the reactionary re-publication of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons is either defiant or useful.

Mehdi Hasan on Islam and blasphemy: Muhammad survived Dante’s Inferno. He’ll survive a YouTube clip

Like freedom, tolerance is not a western invention or innovation; it is an Islamic virtue.

7 January 2015 -
Originally published in the New Statesman on 27 September 2012 -

Dear Muslim protester,

Where do I begin? Having watched you shout and scream in front of the world’s television cameras, throw petrol bombs and smash windows, I reluctantly decided to write this open letter to you.

Let me be blunt: you and I have little in common other than our shared Islamic faith, our common belief that there is no God but God and Muhammad is His Messenger. You live in a Muslim-majority country, where religion (or should that be religious extremism?) defines the boundaries of political debate and the limits of free speech; I was born and brought up in the liberal, secular west as a member of a minority Muslim community.

If I’m honest, I have to say that, listening to your belligerent rhetoric and watching your violent behaviour, I struggle to recognise the Islam in which you profess to believe. My Islamic faith is based on the principles of peace, moderation and mercy; it revolves around the Quranic verses “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) and “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion” (109:6). Yours is a faith disfigured by anger, hate and paranoia.

Please do not misunderstand me: yes, you have every right to be angry. I have no time for those neoconservatives here in the west who airily dismiss “false grievances” in the Middle East and beyond. Muslims have much to be aggrieved over – from Bagram to Guantanamo Bay, from Abu Ghraib to Haditha, from US soldiers urinating on the Quran to the spate of racist films and cartoons depicting our beloved prophet as a terrorist/murderer/paedophile/rapist/ delete-as-applicable.

Anger, however, is not an excuse for extremism. Have you not read this saying by the Prophet? “The strong is not the one who overcomes the people by his strength, but the strong is the one who controls himself while in anger.”

Today, 14 centuries later, too many of us seem to have lost all self-control. Your fanatical counterparts on the Christian evangelical right have a phrase they often deploy: “WWJD”, or “What would Jesus do?”. Perhaps you and your fellow protesters should ask “WWMD”: what would Muhammad do? Would the Prophet endorse your violent attacks on foreign embassies and schools, on police stations and shops?

We both know the answer. As a child, you will have been taught, like me, about how Muhammad was verbally and physically abused by the pagan worshippers of Mecca – but never responded in kind. The Quran calls him a “mercy for all of creation”.

But your anger has blinded you. You tell foreign reporters you are protesting against injustice – but the fight for justice begins at home. Where were you and your fellow flag-burners when a poor, 14-year-old Christian girl in Pakistan was arrested on trumped-up charges of “blasphemy” in August and threatened with the death penalty? Where are you today when the Syrian regime continues to wage war against its own (Muslim) people? Why do you not protest outside the embassies of the Bahraini regime, which tortures and tear-gasses its (Muslim) citizens?

You say you love the Prophet and cannot bear to see him abused, yet in Saudi Arabia the house of the Prophet’s first wife, Khadija, was flattened to make way for a public toilet, while the house where Muhammad was born is now overshadowed by a royal palace. Where is your rage against the Saudi regime? Or is your selfprofessed love for the Prophet just a cynical expression of crude anti-Americanism?

You and I have long complained of the west’s double standards in the Middle East; it is time for us to recognise that Muslims are guilty of equally egregious double standards. Egyptian state television has broadcast a series based on the infamous anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Pakistani television channels regularly air programmes demonizing the country’s Ahmadiyya community. Islamic scholars appear in online videos ridiculing the core beliefs of Judaism and Christianity. Yet you and your allies demand special protection for your religion and your prophet. Why? Is your faith so weak, so brittle? Muhammad, lest we forget, survived Dante’s Inferno. Trust me, he’ll survive a 14-minute clip on YouTube.

Perhaps the greatest irony, and tragedy, is that by publicising the online insults directed at the Prophet, you have given the wretched “Sam Bacile”, the maker of the offensive movie, and his Islamophobic, evangelical Christian ally, Steve Klein, a victory they could never have achieved on their own. Need I remind you that when the full-length film, Innocence of Muslims, was released earlier this year, it was shown only once, to an audience of fewer than ten people, at a run-down cinema in California?

Meanwhile, the reputational damage done to our faith – exacerbated, I hasten to add, by lazy journalists in the west who cannot seem to distinguish between Islam and its adherents – has been immense. Have you not seen the cover of Newsweek magazine? “Muslim rage”, screams the headline.

But I have some (bad) news for you (and, for that matter, Newsweek). You represent no one but yourself. You do not speak for Islam or for the Prophet. Nor are you representative of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. In a recent Gallup survey conducted in ten Muslim-majority countries, representing more than 80 per cent of the global Muslim population, believers, when asked what they admired most about the west, cited political freedoms, fair trials and . . . wait for it . . . freedom of speech.

Your actions undermine not just the great religion of Islam but a worldwide Muslim community, or umma, whose members want to live in peace and freedom despite the provocations from the bigots, phobes and haters.

Like freedom, tolerance is not a western invention or innovation; it is an Islamic virtue. As the great Muslim caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib once wrote: “Remember that people are of two kinds: they are either your brothers in religion or your brothers in mankind.”

Yours faithfully, Mehdi.

Mehdi Hasan is an NS contributing writer and the political director of Huffington Post UK.


Understanding the Brits

2 January 2015

Tai might find this helpful :)

Goodbye 2014 - you will not be missed

31 December 2014

So another year comes to an end and more than any other in recent times I will be glad to see the back of this one.

Of course that does not mean that 2015 will be any better - or that some things simply go away because it is the end of the year - but there will always be the sense that 1 January marks the start of a new year and the hope of change.

2014 will be remembered for the loss of Tai's father in the sort of accident that is just the waste of a life and for her sister's stroke. That her sister has made a partial recovery contrary to the surgeon's expectations is one of the reasons for hope.

Both events highlighted the importance of family and community in Thailand. It is such a tragedy that a country with so much potential is being held back in the dark ages by powerful vested interests and a compliant army. Andrew MacGregor Marshall's late 2014 book "A Kingdom in Crisis" should be required reading for anyone who loves Thailand but who believes in the future rather than a servile past and present. The May coup was just another setback on the road to building a proud future and an educated democratic nation.

Meanwhile an industry that I love had one of its worst years in recent history. The disappearance of MH370 remains one of the great aviation mysteries. I still believe that the wreckage will be found and her secrets revealed but the uncertainty and the wait for the families must be heart-breaking.

No one has yet been found responsible for shooting down MH17. Though most rational people are certain that it was Russian supported Ukraine separatists. Political pragmatism must ot be allowed to hide the truth and bring those responsible to justice.

And just three days ago Air Asia had its first fatal accident with the loss of flight 8501 from Surabaya to Singapore. Air Asia will survive. Its CEO has been strong. But the airline's innocence has gone.

The world seemed a less certain place in 2014. The rise of ISIS in the middle east should concern anyone who values peace in the region. Calm appears to have come to the Ukraine but there remains uncertainty over Russian intentions which have been somewhat short circuited by the dramatic fall in oil prices. Disputes over island ownership and passage through the South China Sea could be the next hot spot. Calm heads should prevail. But the rise of sabre-rattling patriotism could cause escalation. Maybe there is the issue - the rise of extremism is all its different hues. The rest of us - the big silent majority - may just get caught up in the crossfire.

The Gaza conflict in July shocked the world. Israel launched a devastating operation on Gaza after three teenagers were kidnapped by Palestinians. In seven weeks of bombardment, 2,200 people were killed - the vast majority of them Palestinians. There appears to be no acceptable (to all parties) resolution. And war and murder are hiddne behind ever more effective propaganda machines.

Myanmar's refugee problem and the oppression of the Rohinya people continues. The greatest disappointment - the silence of Aung San Suu Chi. After years of persecution she should be standing up for the oppressed not playing for political expediency.

Oscar Pistorius got away with it - which shows what can be done when you can afford the best legal representation. The trial should never have been televised. It simply led to media excess.

Ebola is a reminder that nature can still terrify us and that there are some remarkably brave doctors, nurses and relief agency staff working with little fuss and only with the well-being of their patients in mind.

In a troubled world the US looks impotent; Russia looks weakened; the rise of China is inexorable. How China uses that influence and its economic domination will be a great test for all.

It was a good year for travel - even if it was not always for the happiest of reasons: on the map this year were London, Newcastle, Vienna, Thailand (Bangkok, Phuket, Hua Hin and Chiang Mai), Tokyo, Rome, Vientiane, Switzerland, Devon, Ireland, Stockholm, Norway, Seattle, Portland, Sicily, Hong Kong, Athens, Sydney. Norway and Ireland were highlights; Norway for its scenery and just simple decent friendliness; Ireland for the landing place of Alcock and Brown and for that connection to one of the great feats of aviation.

Lunch in Stockholm was a wonderful way to reconnect. Long lunches and long conversations should happen more often.

Dubai meanders along. As it has rebounded from the 2008-2010 financial crisis the hubris has ratcheted up as well. Dubai was granted the 2020 World Expo. The truble is most people do not know what this is or indeed where the 2015 event will be held. But they have been told it is important so it is.

There are still too many vanity construction projects - hello Dubai canal - and not enough projects that make a difference to the lives of all the UAE's residents. The trouble is when Dubi booms there are people taking advantage - and when it crashes there have been too many people taking advantage. Meanwhile human rights and concerns over legal transparency remain a concern here as they do throughout much of the region.

So that's about it - a troubled year ends. And a new year begins. I wonder where I will be writing this from in 12 months time.

Take care, gentle reader. Thank you. Have a safe and happy new year and an optimistic 2015.

In praise of.....London

31 December 2014

It is time to give London its due - it is one of the world's great cities - maybe it eve tops the list.

I left London in 1988. Thatcher was Prime Minister. Eddie the Eagle was the best the British could offer at the Calgary WInter Olympics. London felt old, tired.

The new London is far from perfect - that is part of its appeal. But it is a vibrant, international city, that has benefited hugely from an influx of nationalities who have arrived to study, work or just to explore.

That to me is the biggest and most welcome difference. The new London is an international city. The old 1980s London was a British city.

House prices are prohibitive. The best properties are now foreign owned. Commutes have become longer and more expensive. The infrastructure creaks....but that at least gives the British something to complain about.

Over Christmas engineering work on the railways predictably did not finish in time. Finsbury Park - a remote NE London commuter station replaced Kings Cross as London's main terminal for two days. Perhaps the daftest piece of contingency planning since Canute tried t stop the incoming tide. Misery for those caught up in the mess. Mirth for the rest of us.

But what a fun place to visit. The investment in the city over the last thirty years has transformed derelict suburbs into new destinations; Canary Wharf; the city around Liverpool Street; Paddington Basin; the transformation of the South Bank, including Borough and Southwark.

On a sunny, cold December Sunday evening crowds on the south bank were enjoying a European style winter fair. The churros and hot chocolate stand was next to the duck confit burger stand and the chorizo roll and hot sangria stand. There was music. There was the buzz of a happy crowd.

The river is so much busier than it used to be. Tour boats continue through the winter months. The redevelopment of the South Bank, allows an uninterrupted walk along the river and takes in the Globe Theatre; the Tate Modern, the National Theatre - and some fine restaurants, bars, and markets. London is a city where you should explore as much as you can on foot. There is always something to see.

Over in Covent Garden, whose transformation in the 1980s arguably started the rebuilding of London as a destination, performers entertained a big crowd. The market was busy. The festive decorations were classy. The subway station as over-crowded as it always is.

Chinatown and Soho were busy. This is a very different Soho from 30 years ago. Restaurants of just about every nationality line the streets. Few of the staff are British - maybe that is why they are welcoming and enthusiastic. There is a warm energy. Explore and you will be rewarded.

The media remains vibrant - both traditional and new media. Fleet Street's media giants have long gone, to be replaced by solicitors and accountants and even a Premier Inn in one of the old Reuters buildings. But reading newspapers like the Independent and Guardian is a good reminder of what quality, questioning, informative and sometimes humourous journalism can do....and is such a refreshing change after too many years of the SCMP, Bangkok Post and Gulf News.

Maybe that is part of the charm - London does not take itself too seriously. None of the pompous overblown self promotion of Dubai. London has it all and does not need to make a loud noise about it. Take Paddington station where a statue of the great engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel sits next to a tribute to Paddington Bear. London has this ability to make people smile.

I am sure living in London has many frustrations. The cost of living is among the highest in the world. But for a visitor it is hard to beat.