Meet a couple who are saving cultural heritage, and lives, in the Middle East   no comments

Posted at 1:56 pm in the places I would like to go

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But their story is also about demonstrating to the world that saving this heritage saves bloodshed.

Benjamin Isakhan and Diane Siebrandt could not be more different. He is Australian, she is American; he is a former political scientist, she trained as an anthropologist and an archaeologist.

A 2003 image inside Iraq’s largest archaeological museum in Baghdad after it was looted. Photo: AFP

They each work at Deakin University’s Burwood campus: Isakhan is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation; Siebrandt is doing a PhD. It is here, in the functional but tranquil surroundings of suburban academe, that their professional lives have intertwined.

Burwood may be common territory to them, but so too are the volatile sandy lands half a world away – countries such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, whose proud, rich cultures, some dating to 3500BC, are being systematically destroyed.

Isakhan and Siebrandt are at the forefront of concerted efforts to preserve what’s left.

What precious little there is represents the very foundations of civilisation and the dawn of human thought. The fundamental beginnings of philosophy, politics, law, science, medicine and astronomy are all embodied in these ruins.

Siebrandt’s thesis, on the changing relationship between US troops and Iraqi archaeologists during the Iraq war, is a result of her extended time in the country working as a US cultural affairs officer based at the embassy in Baghdad.

Her work recently won her an award from the US Combatant Command Cultural Heritage Action Group to honour monuments men and women of today. She is the only civilian recipient on the list.

Isakhan has been instrumental in setting up a three-year project that aims to establish the world’s first database of heritage sites that have been damaged or destroyed through occupation, looting or sectarian conflict. So far, the database has about 700 entries, detailing sites destroyed between 2003 to 2011.

The point where these two projects meet is a game-changer: to create greater practical understanding by occupiers of the vital importance of cultural preservation.

In fact, it is not just a matter of maintaining heritage, but of saving thousands of lives.

For every one story we know, we know we’ve lost that much – or more – again. The story of any of the kings and rulers and empires that came and went, we know that that much information has been lost and can never be recuperated.

Dr Benjamin Isakhan, senior research fellow, Deakin University

Each and every artefact has a story to tell, Isakhan says. In archaeological terms, he explains, this is known as context and association. In other words, not just a particular object, but its very location; its relationship to other objects and their position in the overall site.

”Without context and association, the object loses almost all of its scientific value,” says Isakhan. ”Once it’s been systematically and inexpertly ripped out of the ground, even if recovered, it has lost almost, if not all, of its value.”

The problem, says Isakhan – one that has dramatically worsened since the Iraqi war began in 2003 – is the unprecedented, looting of archaeological sites on an industrial scale. He says antiquities are the fourth-largest commodity smuggled across borders after drugs, guns and people.

”Bands of 30 or 40 men show up with bulldozers and floodlights, smashing and robbing their way through the sites, then immediately smuggle stuff out of the country.”

Isakhan puts it into perspective by evoking ancient Mesopotamia, the river-system area that corresponded to parts of what are now Iraq, Kuwait and Syria. All our knowledge about Mesopotamia comes down to no more than about half a million artefacts excavated over the past 150 years.

”If we talk about the looting from 2003, about 200,000 objects have been taken each year,” says Isakhan. ”So we can say there’s more that has been taken than what we have to tell us everything we know about Mesopotamia. Every one story we know, we know we’ve lost that much – or more – again.”

Looting, however prevalent, is not the only threat to heritage destruction. Other sustained damage can come from military occupation – for example, when the US forces occupied Iraq, they set up sites on top of the ancient city of Babylon – or can be caused by sectarian conflict.

”There are important ideological trends behind all this,” says Isakhan. ”The things that drive al-Qaeda and other groups to pronounce [certain aspects of] Islam as a blasphemous, deviant cult. That becomes part of the ideology and the justification of what they do.”

The worst record for sectarian violence and plunder is not, surprisingly, Iraq but its neighbour, Syria.

”All the anecdotal data suggests that what happened in Iraq in a decade took just three years in Syria. Iraq was a walk in the park compared with what’s happening in Syria.”

Isakhan says this is driven by two wars. ”The physical war of killing each other, but also the symbolic war of destroying heritage to promote a linear, singular narrative of the way the world was and … should be.”

It is, he says, a long and sordid tale.

Isakhan’s involvement began in late 2007, while he was finishing his PhD at Griffith University, when a colleague asked him to give a paper to a seminar on heritage destruction. ”It was of tangential interest, but I agreed,” he says. ”The day I read up on it was the day the essential thrust of my work changed forever.”

What was needed, he decided, was a proper and thorough examination of the appalling destruction of heritage sites; of putting it in a wider context involving other data, such as retribution attacks and details of civilian and military casualties.

Three years ago, Isakhan received an Australian Research Council grant to set up the database. It is run by a four-person team, including Siebrandt for one day a week, as well as 15 research assistants in Iraq.

Isakhan says the database provides thorough documentation, not only of the level of destruction, but the sheer scale, over which can be mapped other crucial bits of information.

A vital source is the Iraq body-count website, which, Isakhan says, is the most reliable indication of civilian casualties that can be intensively surveyed, even on a day-to-day basis.

”We can see not only when significant sites have been bombed, but where and when there have been attacks on rival heritage sites and attacks on rival communities,” he says. ”It might be an obvious conclusion – bomb something and they’re going to hit back – but we have the actual evidence.”

From this can be seen not just the first wave of retribution, but several waves. ”We can see, in some instances, that failure to protect sites can result on attacks on troops,” says Isakhan.

In short, he says, it is imperative to protect heritage sites during a major occupation of a volatile and religiously complex society. ”If you don’t protect the very embodiments of people’s ideas and aspirations, what you’ll see is not only the destruction of those sites, but a sharp degeneration of social cohesion and a dramatic escalation of violence.”

Isakhan says that once completed, the database could be an invaluable resource to the military.

”We can say, ‘If you fail to protect heritage sites, you will lose your own lives. If the central purpose of any occupation is to defeat the enemy, restore peace, save you money, prevent you being stuck in the quagmire of military occupation, stop mass sectarian conflict, and prevent thousands of lives being lost … well, this will help you win the war.”’

One of the greater legacies was getting everyone to talk and understand. You know, we fear what we don’t understand.

Diane Siebrandt, cultural liaison officer, US Embassy, Iraq, 2006-13.

Siebrandt’s fascination with archaeology, palaeontology, and the gods and demons of Mesopotamia led her to apply for a job in Iraq in 2005. For a year, she worked with the US military investigating the mass graves that held hundreds of thousands of Kurds wiped out by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

A year later, Siebrandt moved to Baghdad to work on a cultural heritage program. ”When I hit the ground, they had no idea what they wanted me to do,” she says.

It was a dangerous time. From 2003 to 2009, when she moved into the US embassy compound, Siebrandt lived in one of the many trailers around Saddam’s former presidential palace by the Tigris. ”Everyone knew we were there,” she says. ”Al-Qaeda was trying to get us out. There were rockets and mortars every day.

”One day, 32 rockets came in and my trailer was blown up. Let me tell you, nothing in the world sounds like a rocket hitting the ground.”

But Siebrandt stayed on, telling herself, ”I’m here to do a job – form relationships between Iraq and the Americans to try to save cultural heritage. I enjoy working with the Iraqis, they’re not going to chase me away.”

Besides, she says, it took time to gain the trust of the many Iraqi curators and specialists. Only by establishing this trust could Siebrandt and the Iraqis work together to start to preserve the country’s cultural heritage.

”I was there for so long, they knew me; they knew I would do the utmost to make happen what I’d promised to help them achieve.”

She had the right stuff, as did her employer. ”The only reason I could do it is the US had the biggest embassy in the world, the most money, and the biggest army to provide logistical support. It all came down to the size and funding the American presence afforded me.”

Successful projects included securing US funding to help restore the ancient city of Babylon – a site partially damaged when the US built a base on top of some of the ruins – and the refurbishment of the Baghdad Museum, which was severely looted and run down.

”It’s still not open to the public,” Siebrandt says. ”Iraq is very afraid of suicide bombers.” But when it does open, the museum staff will be up to speed, thanks to the establishment of an American-funded conservation training centre in Iraq’s Kurdistan – another significant legacy of Siebrandt’s time.

She also helped establish a grants program that enabled at least 100 Iraqi cultural workers to study modern conservation techniques in the US.

”They just didn’t have that knowledge and there was no way to get it,” she says. ”With sanctions, they had no books, no materials to do conservations, and were relying on techniques from the 1970s.”

In the field, embedded with the military or accompanied by State Department security forces, Siebrandt proved to be an active and influential conduit between occupiers and occupants. At the same time, she was helping to build a sense of cross-cultural understanding.

”What did the Iraqis know about the Americans? That their soldiers kicked in their doors in the middle of the night and took away their families. And what did the Americans think of them? That they’re the guys who shoot at them as they drive down the street.

”As the State Department or military security followed me around the various heritage sites, I’d be talking with Iraqi archaeologists about stuff that was maybe 5000 years old. This was a form of cultural-awareness training, and one of the most joyful experiences I had.”

After leaving Iraq in 2013, Siebrandt – urged by Isakhan – successfully applied to do her PhD at Deakin.

”It’s interesting the path life leads us down,” she says. ”I just thought I’d be an archaeologist and stay in a hole somewhere.”

What drove her to writing her thesis was the change in the attitude of the military towards Iraq as the war progressed, and the increasing sense of importance of respecting the country’s heritage.

”I’m hoping that I will show that what was done at the beginning of the war was not conducive to establishing a positive relationship,” she says. ”We will go to war again – that’s inevitable – but if the US and other militaries can put the results of my research into their policies, they can prevent violence and save the lives of their own soldiers.”

Michael Shmith is a senior writer.

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Written by enfoquec on April 18th, 2014

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Langham Hospitality Group Enters The Middle East With The Langham Brand In …   no comments

Posted at 1:28 pm in the places I would like to go

Two milestone “firsts” for the company: Luxury property on Palm Jumeirah will be the Group’s first in the region, and the first resort in the global portfolio.

Langham Hospitality Group announced today an agreement with DAS Real Estate to manage The
Langham resort in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Located on the crescent of Palm Jumeirah and
scheduled to open in 2015, this 323-room resort marks double landmark “firsts” for the Hong Kong-
based hotel company: it is the group’s first foray into the Middle East and the first resort in its global

With the interiors designed by the Aedas Limited, The Langham, Palm
Jumeirah, Dubai
will showcase tasteful furnishings reflective of the brand’s heritage as one of
the premier grand hotels in Europe. With a prime waterfront location directly facing the Arabian Gulf
and the impressive Dubai Marina skyline, all the rooms and suites will have expansive outdoor terraces
and sea-front views that will take full advantage of the emirate’s year-round sunny climes. Catering to
couples and large families, the resort will have 53 well-appointed one- and two-bedroom suites that
range from 63 to 236 square meters; 22 of them will feature individual plunge pools.

Designed to become one of the city’s social centres for dining, The Langham will offer guests a wide
variety of innovative restaurants and bars, most of them with al fresco waterside dining. Headlining the
culinary options will be Palm Court, an elegant lounge modeled after its namesake at The Langham,
London – the first grand hotel to serve the traditional afternoon tea in 1865.

Other dining
experiences include a Japanese restaurant, a waterfront seafood outlet, a niche breakfast room, an
Arabic and Italian fusion café, an all-day restaurant featuring international buffet and a la carte
selections, a beach restaurant and a juice bar that offers light snacks and refreshments. The hotel will
also feature a Club Lounge offering complimentary food and beverage presentations throughout the
day and dedicated concierge service.

Setting a new standard for leisure travellers, The
Langham, Palm Jumeirah will feature one of the region’s largest hotel recreation facility covering
almost 4,000 square meters over two floors.

For an unrivalled retreat of relaxation, the
group’s signature award-winning Chuan Spa will showcase a remarkable 26 treatment rooms as well as
therapies based on the sound principles of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM.) The expansive fitness
centre features a free form pool, exercise studio, and a full range of strength- and cardio-training
equipment. Catering to family holiday makers is a 445-square meter Kids Club with a fun slide, play
zone and themed party area.

A distinctive feature of The Langham, Palm Jumeirah is the
dedicated Travellers Lounge which will provide all the facilities and comforts for early arrival or late
departure flyers. Designed as a sanctuary and an extension of the luxury resort experience, guests are
welcome to take full advantage of the well-stocked library, entertainment selections, light dining
service, business centre and shower/change rooms with the compliments of the resort.

Adding to the mystique, The Langham signature pink roses will be specially grown at the resort with the
assistance of a refrigerated irrigation system. Native palms, fruit trees and water features will provide
an oasis of serenity for guests and local visitors.

“We are very much looking forward to
introducing The Langham’s rich heritage and impeccable service values to Dubai,” said Robert Warman,
chief executive officer of Langham Hospitality Group. “The trifecta of this hotel’s spectacular location on
the iconic Palm Jumeirah, Dubai’s winning bid to host the World Expo in 2020, and The Langham’s
beautiful design aesthetics, make it the perfect time to debut our first resort in this dynamic

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Written by enfoquec on April 16th, 2014

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Timeline: Al-Aqsa mosque   no comments

Posted at 12:53 pm in the places I would like to go

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Written by enfoquec on April 14th, 2014

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UNESCO to send mission to assess Jerusalem   no comments

Posted at 12:27 pm in the places I would like to go

An expert mission is to be sent to the Old City of Jerusalem to evaluate its state of preservation and submit a report along with recommendations to the World Heritage Committee to be held in Doha in June, a United Nations resolution passed yesterday said.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)’s Executive Board passed the resolution by an overwhelming majority; only the US voted against it during the Executive Board’s meeting in Paris.

Palestine and Jordan were able to issue several resolutions through the Executive Board and the World Heritage Committee demanding Israel halt all illegal violations against the holy city. They have also called for Israel to stop accusing those concerned with preserving the city’s heritage “of politicising the work of UNESCO and other international organisations”.


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Written by enfoquec on April 12th, 2014

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US Pair Can’t Leave Qatar Amid Appeal   no comments

Posted at 11:56 am in the places I would like to go

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Written by enfoquec on April 10th, 2014

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Kerry under fire over Mideast peace process   no comments

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Peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have hit another snag, prompting Washington to reassess whether to continue brokering talks marred by what a White House spokesman called “unhelpful actions” by both conflict parties. US Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama on Tuesday (08.04.2014). Late last week,
Kerry had stated it was time for a “reality check” – that there was a limit to US efforts if the parties themselves were unwilling to move forward, Kerry said during a visit to Morocco.

This tentative failure “has damaged Kerry’s reputation because it shows that he misread the situation,” said Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the conservative, Washington-based Heritage Foundation. Kerry overestimated the prospects for a successful negotiation and also devoted an immense amount of time to this issue while neglecting other, more pressing topics, Phillips told DW.

Reality check for Kerry?

eight months of shuttle diplomacy, more than a dozen trips to the region and countless rounds of evening negotiations, Kerry decided to pull the emergency brake and announced to carry out a “reality check” regarding the peace process. But first and foremost, it might turn into a reality check for Kerry himself, writes the “New York Times.”

And this could be uncomfortable for Kerry, who – according to Republican Senator John McCain – chooses to ignore reality. Kerry has not just been criticized by the opposition; off the record, criticism has also been voiced by politicians in the Obama administration.

Netanyahu has threatened to punish Palestinians for submitting requests to join international treaties

Meanwhile, Obama publicly supported his secretary of state, saying, “I have nothing but admiration for how John [Kerry] has handled this.” While that kind of backing might help him at home, it won’t restore his prestige and authority abroad. Obama largely left handling the Mideast peace process to Kerry and has only tried within the last month to up pressure on Abbas and Netanyahu toward reaching an agreement.

Matthew Duss of the Center for American Progress says it has been a problem that the US wasn’t allowed to publicly talk about its successes along the way due to confidentiality. Contrary to Phillips, he regards Kerry’s role as mainly positive.

“The way Secretary Kerry was managing this process was very good. I think the security assessment that was done by General Allen in particular was a very smart move, addressing upfront one of Israel’s biggest concerns, which is the security arrangement that would come after the end of the occupation,” he told DW.

That opened up a time slot for a possible agreement early this year.

According to Duss, Kerry’s main failure was “that he did underestimate the lack of trust that exists between the parties right now.”

Abbas’ dwindling power

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had been considerably weakened from the start of the talks, since he was isolated in his own government and amongst the leadership of the Palestinians. And although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed on Sunday that Israel was ready to continue talks, experts widely expressed doubts that he was serious about negotiations.

Their skepticism was indeed justified, Duss said, pointing to Israel’s decision last week – contrary to prior agreement –
not to release another group of Palestinian prisoners. In turn, that move pushed Abbas to sign a series of global treaties and agreements on behalf of the State of Palestine. Officially accepting such documents would be equivalent to recognizing Palestinian statehood – a prospect the US and Israel would be unlikely to accept.

Abbas decided to sign treaties on behalf of the State of Palestine, thus angering Israel

According to Phillips, Kerry failed to sufficiently account for the fact that the Abbas administration doesn’t rule the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the militant Islamic group Hamas.

“And as long as Hamas is there, it can torpedo any agreement that the Palestinian authority makes overnight with another round of rocket terrorism. And that greatly reduces Israel’s willingness to make concessions,” he said.

Duss said Obama is wise by taking Kerry out of the line of fire for now and putting experienced diplomats on the case. That buys time to rethink their role and increases pressure on players in the region. It seems clear that Netanyahu is very concerned about the consequences of failure, Duss said.

Against ‘artificial deadlines’

Israelis and Palestinians have increased the frequency of their meetings again in an attempt to save the peace talks and extend the deadline, which will expire in three weeks time. Phillips, however, warns about imposing a new deadline.

“It would be a mistake to set artificial deadlines for reaching an agreement, even on a framework agreement,” he said in regards to Kerry’s announcement to finalize negotiations by the end of April. “Time and time again, the US has pushed prematurely for final settlement, going back to Clinton at second Camp David, the Bush administration at Indianapolis talks, and then Obama in the first term and then Kerry in the second term,” he said, adding, “I just don’t think conditions on the ground are right for a peace settlement.”

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Written by enfoquec on April 8th, 2014

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The UAE: A Thriving Japanese Car Market   no comments

Posted at 9:33 am in the places I would like to go

The Japanese automotive industry is one of the most prominent in the world.

Japan is currently the world’s third largest automobile manufacturer in the world with an annual production of 9.9 million vehicles in 2012. Six out of ten of the world’s largest automobile manufacturers have their bases in the island nation.

Brands like Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Suzuki, Mitsubishi and Mazda are synonymous with safety and quality. Likewise,Yamaha and Kawasaki remain the bywords of durability and endurance. The ‘green’ car industry is also ruled by Japanese car–makers Toyota (which includes the highly acclaimed Prius) and Honda (includes the Civic and Insight hybrids). Nissan is also aggressively pursuing a plan to push green car sales.

Japanese car–makers have faced a string of tough challenges over the past few years: starting with the 2008 financial crisis, followed by the yen strengthening to a record high against the dollar – a move that undermines the price competitiveness of vehicles built in Japan and is threatening companies to move production overseas.

A massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan and severe floods in Thailand disrupted the parts supply chain and led to months of production stoppages and constrained the supply of vehicles followed by recalls of millions of vehicles due to safety glitches.

In spite of these setbacks, Japan’s auto industry is starting to see potential big improvements in its business environment.

The yen recently weakened to a 28-month low against the dollar as the newly established government vowed to tackle the yen’s strength. The Nikkei subindex for the auto sector has surged more than 26 per cent since mid –November, outstripping a 20 percent rise on the benchmark Nikkei during the same period.


According to a report by Dubai Customs, Japan is the UAE’s top automobile trading partner, accounting for 25 per cent of foreign trade valued at Dh 8 billion for the first half of 2013.

Japanese brands traditionally regarded as more reliable than their European and US counterparts–are the country’s best one sellers.

Car giant Toyota announced a strong growth of 31 per cent in sales across the Middle East in 2012.The Japanese auto giant delivered 660,285 vehicles, making 2012 a record year in the region for the Toyota and Lexus brands. Globally, sales of Toyota and Lexus cars totalled 8.72 million units, an increase of 23 per cent compared to 2011.

Across the GCC region alone, Toyota sold 624,400 vehicles in 2012.

Similarly, 2012 was acknowledged as the best year ever for sales for Nissan Middle East for its Nissan Patrol flagship vehicle.

More than 14,000 Nissan Patrols were sold in the Middle East in 2012 representing a 66 per cent increase in sales and giving Nissan Patrol a record market share of 22 per cent in the Gulf market.

The Nissan Patrol is Nissan’s flagship SUV model and enjoys a rich heritage and passionate following in the Middle East that dates back to the 1950s. The iconic vehicle notched another historic milestone by setting a Guinness World Record – ‘heaviest object pulled by any production vehicle’.

An unmodified production of Nissan Patrol hauled a 170.9-tonne cargo plane, inclusive of the weight of the plane, cargo and fuel, for over 50 meters at the Sharjah International Airport.


The auto parts trade in the Dubai has grown over 27 per cent in the last four years, according to a Dubai Customs report.

Dubai’s auto spare parts foreign trade was valued at Dhs7 billion in 2012, an increase of Dhs8 billion as compared to Dhs29 billion in 2009. The auto spare parts market continued to rise, reaching Dhs32 billion in 2010 and Dhs36 billion in 2011, most of which is made up from export and re-export activities, taking up the major share of foreign trade.

Japan is deemed to be Dubai`s top trade partner in spare parts and accessories, claiming 28 per cent of the imports market share with a value of Dhs6.1 billion.

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Written by enfoquec on April 6th, 2014

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