Carafano: Continue US air strikes; leave ground fighting to the Kurds   no comments

Posted at 9:24 pm in the places I would like to go

The best way to start winning a war is to stop losing. That axiom certainly applies to what’s going on in Iraq. But, that said, there is no place for American brigades in this battle.

Yes, Americans have a huge stake in preventing al-Qaida’s cousin from setting up a brutal caliphate in Iraq. The Middle East is a crossroads of the world. If unchecked, the malevolent influence of the Islamic State could spiral into a sectarian conflict engulfing the entire region.

By some estimates, there are now more than 10,000 foreign fighters in Iraq, including more than 3,000 from the U.S. and other Western nations. These fighters may, in future, be reassigned to return home and wage terrorist campaigns. No matter how you slice it, the longer a terrorist state stands in Iraq, the bigger the problem it poses.

Thus, America has every reason to act. The question is: How? The answer does not require massive American ground forces on Iraqi soil.

That’s not because Americans are “sick and tired of war.” Americans don’t like wars – and never have. Yet we fight when we have to. Americans are resilient and practical people. If there is a war to be won and our leaders lay out sensible reasons to fight and a practical, suitable and feasible way to win, Americans will march to the sound of the trumpets.

But not every crisis needs to be handled by sending in the Marines. In this case, the U.S. has practical options that fit well with our vital national interests and can help relieve the growing humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

Washington should focus on marginalizing the destructive influence of Iran, choking off the pipeline that feeds foreign fighters to the Islamic State and setting the conditions that will allow the Iraqis to take back their country.

The Iranian regime is already overstretched. With a nuclear “deal” nowhere in sight, the U.S. has every reason to reinvigorate the sanctions regime against Tehran. This will force them to end their expensive forays into Iraq.

To halt the flow of foreign fighters, the U.S. should focus on disrupting pipeline operations in Turkey and other “countries of transit” where fighters stage to move in and out of the Syria-Iraq theater.

The rest of the solution lies in helping native assets on the ground do their jobs better. Kurdish security forces and volunteers are more than willing and capable of defending themselves.

What they need is rapid, effective support from the U.S. and other friends and allies. In the south, the Iraq military is still a force to be reckoned with.

What’s needed in both areas are air support, skilled advisors, intelligence gathering, ammo and other supplies.

The U.S. can help with all of that. And it should also keep working diplomatically to help Tehran’s sectarian, malfunctioning government get its act together.

The U.S. also needs to help nearby Jordan, which has borne the brunt of housing more than 600,000 registered refugees from Syria. Strained by that immense burden, Amman now finds itself in the crosshairs of the Islamic State.

Driving those fighters from the field requires American support, but not an American invasion.

Once the dual dangers of the Islamic State and Iran are rolled back, there might well be a role for an international force in Iraq to help stabilize things while the nation rebuilds.

This is a role that U.S. forces would have played, had they not been precipitously withdrawn in 2011. The scope and composition of that international force is something a farsighted leader might want to start thinking about. But for now, Washington must focus primarily on how to stop losing.

A 25-year Army veteran, James Jay Carafano is vice president of Defense and Foreign Policy Studies for The Heritage Foundation, (, a conservative think tank on Capitol Hill.

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Written by enfoquec on August 23rd, 2014

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Bait Muzna Gallery’s head wants artists to raise the bar   no comments

Posted at 9:24 pm in the places I would like to go

Muscat: Bait Muzna Gallery’s new director, Christine O’Donnell, arrived in Muscat two months ago from Washington DC, bringing a creative spirit and a love of the Arab world, which she hopes will complement Oman’s growing arts scene.

Christine’s career began with a 12-year stint on Wall Street in New York City, but her real passion was for the arts and culture, not business and banking. A self-described “creative geek” who grew up in Boston visiting museums and galleries, she took a job working in a bead museum in Washington DC, which not only fulfilled her desire to work in a more “artsy” environment, it also led to her interest in the Arab world.

“We had an exhibition on Middle Eastern jewellery. I just fell in love with it and learned so much. Through that, I became entrenched in the Arab scene in Washington DC, with the embassies and non-profits,” she explains.

This was not long after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, so the Arab world was very relevant. Christine was intrigued by the political dynamics and the culture, and soon enrolled in classes about the Middle East and travelled to this part of the world, visiting the GCC and Yemen.

Eventually, this led to her decision to move to the Middle East.

She brings with her experience from the Middle Eastern Museum in Washington DC, the Foundy Gallery, where she focused on curating exhibitions by Middle Eastern artists, and the Jerusalem Fund Gallery. She has also worked with the Embassy of Saudi Arabia’s Cultural Mission in the USA, the National Council on US-Arab Relations, and an organisation called Friends of Saudi Arabia.

She describes her move to Bait Muzna Gallery as serendipitous, since she had been curious about moving to Oman, a country she had never visited, but which she had heard many wonderful things, and Susan Al Said, the gallery’s owner, who happened to be looking for a new director around the time Christine was looking at possible job options in Muscat.
Christine bubbles with enthusiasm about her new position and has many ideas to promote young Omani artists, collaborate with galleries in neighbouring countries, and host workshops with international artists.

“I think we’re going to do a combination to start. Beginning in October, we’re going to bring in some artists from a gallery in Dubai,” she explains.

In the two months since she arrived in Muscat, Christine has also been busy meeting with local artists and critiquing their art. She hopes she can look at the work with a fresh perspective and encourage artists to push their limits and strengthen their skills. “…Artists who are intrigued by my comments, and I’m pushing them, those are the artists we want. We’re not taking them if they don’t push,” Christine says.

She says there is a lot of local talent in Oman, and there is an environment that supports the arts. With economic growth, more tourism, and other developments happening, there is more corporate support for artists and new venues, including the Royal Opera House Muscat and several new private galleries.

There is also much pre-existing culture and heritage. All of this made her think Muscat would be the perfect place for herself.

“It had to have an arts scene and it had to be somewhere where I felt comfortable in my skin as a creative human being. Is there a creative pulse? And is there history and culture and heritage? I love that it comes together in Oman,” she adds.

To get in touch with the reporter

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Written by enfoquec on August 23rd, 2014

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Business in Nigeria Africa’s testing ground   no comments

Posted at 9:11 pm in the places I would like to go

IN 2001 MTN, a fledgling telecoms company from South Africa, paid $285m for one of four mobile licences sold at auction by the government of Nigeria. Observers thought its board was bonkers. Nigeria had spent most of the previous four decades under military rule. The country was rich in oil reserves but otherwise desperately poor. Its infrastructure was crumbling. The state phone company had taken a century to amass a few hundred thousand customers from a population of 120m. The business climate was scarcely stable.

MTN took a punt anyway. The firm’s boss called up colleagues from his old days in pay-television and found they had 10m Nigerian customers. He reasoned that if they could afford pay-TV they could stump up for a mobile phone. Within five years MTN had 32m customers. The company now operates across Africa and the Middle East. But Nigeria was its making and remains its biggest single source of profits.

Tales of rich rewards have many firms scrambling to invest in Nigeria. Africa contains some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Nigeria is the largest. In April its official GDP figures were revised up by 90% after hopelessly dated numbers were rebased. Roughly one in five of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 930m people lives there. Its population is growing at a rate of 2-3% a year (see charts). Its people are young, ambitious and increasingly well educated.

Nigeria’s promise has made it a test-bed for the Africa strategies of consumer-goods firms. This is not only because of its size. It is also because of the spread of Nigerian culture—its music and movies—around Africa, says Yaw Nsarkoh of Unilever. The Anglo-Dutch company has been trading in Nigeria for nearly a century and is expanding its operations. Nestlé, a Swiss rival, plans to triple sales over the next decade. Procter Gamble, another global consumer giant, has just completed a factory near Lagos, its second in Nigeria. SABMiller, the world’s second-largest beermaker, built a state-of-the-art brewery in Onitsha, in the Niger Delta, in 2012 and is already adding capacity.

Just as Nigeria is used as shorthand for the business opportunity in Africa it is also a summary of the continent’s shortcomings. An outbreak of Ebola in Guinea has spread to Lagos. Attacks by Boko Haram, a fanatical Islamist group, are a chilling reminder that conflict is never far away in Africa. Transport and power infrastructure is poor. The rules of the game for business can change quickly and for the worse. Reaching a mass of consumers is no small task because most shopping is done in open markets or at roadside stalls. Yet a growing band of global firms believes the business opportunity in Nigeria will outweigh the risks.

A shortage of electricity is one of the worst problems. Power cuts are frequent. Nigeria is ranked 185th out of 189 countries for ease of getting electricity in the World Bank’s “Doing Business” survey. Its power stations generate just 4GW of electricity, a tenth of the capacity in South Africa, the continent’s second-largest economy, which itself faces shortages.

Cross-border trade has been growing faster than GDP. Container traffic has risen by an annual average of 12% in recent years, says Toon Pierre of Maersk, a Danish shipping company. The creaking transport infrastructure struggles to cope. Nigeria has no deepwater port so can only accommodate vessels a quarter the size of the world’s largest ships. The paperwork at customs is voluminous. Shoprite, a supermarket chain based in South Africa, said last year that it can take 117 days for stock to reach stores in Nigeria. The time spent waiting for clearance leaves cornflakes tasting of detergent.

Things (sometimes) fall apart

Lagos’s two ports are close to the gridlocked city centre. The congestion is as bad inside the docks as around them. Sending goods by road is perilous. The biggest headache for Jumia, an online retailer, is not that its delivery vans will be robbed, but that they will be involved in an accident, says Jeremy Hodara, one of the firm’s co-founders. Nigeria has one of the world’s highest rates of road deaths. The government only recently made lessons and tests mandatory for new drivers.

Few countries make it as difficult to register property. Land is expensive and disputes over title are common. Piecing together tracts that are big enough for factories, warehouses or shopping malls is tricky. It costs more than twice as much to build a mall as in South Africa. Imports of cement are banned to protect local manufacturers. Dangote Cement, the biggest producer, makes a whopping 62% margin on sales in Nigeria.

The high cost of construction and land disputes have curbed the growth of formal retailing. Grocery chains account for less than 3% of retail sales. Shoprite reckons there will be room for up to 800 of its shops in Nigeria but as yet has only ten. No chain has a nationwide presence. Lagos is home to 20m people but can boast only two world-class shopping malls: the Palms, which opened in 2005, and Ikeja Mall, in 2011. Typically 40% of mall tenants are clothes retailers, says Michael Chu’di Ejekam of Actis, the private-equity firm that built them. A ban until 2010 on the import of finished textiles (a clumsy attempt to revive local industry) made developers think twice.

In such a fragmented market it is difficult to forecast sales. Transport bottlenecks make supply erratic. So consumer businesses are obliged to keep plenty of stock in reserve. Fresh bread is a draw to Shoprite’s stores, so it keeps a warehouse full of flour to ensure a constant supply, says Dianna Games of the South Africa-Nigeria Chamber of Commerce. Lean manufacturing is a non-starter. PZ Cussons, the British firm behind Imperial Leather soap, keeps up to three months of stock at its factories in Nigeria. In contrast the liquid-soap plant near its Manchester headquarters carries inputs to keep it going for just four hours, plus a few lorry-loads of finished goods.

Back to basics

Dispersed customers and inefficient supply chains increase the cost of doing business. That gives rise to the basic challenge for consumer-goods firms: how to sell to a mostly poor population at prices that are by necessity above global norms.

“You start by asking what consumers can pay,” says Unilever’s Mr Nsarkoh. “You then ask: ‘how can we supply at that price?’ ” Manufacturers aim for price points of 10 or 20 naira (6 or 12 cents) that are a gateway to low-income shoppers. The trick is to find a serving that is big enough not to be absurd but small enough to make those prices profitable: a 4g stock cube, say, or 26g of detergent, or 13g of toothpaste.

Newer entrants are pushing prices down. SABMiller’s Hero lager was launched in 2012 for 150 naira a bottle, compared with 200 naira for Star, the market leader and 250 naira for Guinness. It also offers chibuku, an even cheaper brew developed in Zambia. UAC Foods, a local firm, has not increased the price of its Gala sausage rolls since 2006, says Robyn Collins of Renaissance Capital, an investment bank. The price of Nestlé’s Maggi stock cubes is stuck at three for 10 naira. When the cost of inputs rises, it is pack sizes that usually adjust.

A second big challenge is getting goods to customers. “It is not just the poor roads in remote areas; it is also the variety of languages,” says Kais Marzouki of Nestlé, which delivers directly to shops in other emerging markets but in Nigeria opts to use third-party distributors instead. PZ Cussons has a network of 25 cash-and-carry depots dotted around Nigeria. Traders bring a lorry and stop off at separate warehouses to collect each category of goods. Fierce competition among traders keeps their markup as low as 1-2%, says Brandon Leigh, PZ’s chief financial officer.

Companies also use clusters of retailers who act as wholesalers to get to their customers. SABMiller’s brewery in Onitsha sells some of its output through the local beer market where small traders can buy lager by the case. Many of the phones and computers sold in West Africa pass through a warren of shops in Lagos known as Computer Village. Every corner of the district has been turned into an electronics outlet. Some shops are so narrow that customers have to walk in sideways.

One manufacturer chose to develop its own sales channel. “With our own retail chain we could be sure there would be an outlet for our brands,” says Pawan Sharma, who runs the Nigerian consumer-goods businesses of Tolaram, a Singaporean conglomerate. Its retail arm, called BestChoice, first rents shops and then invites shopkeepers to run them. It makes a profit on the stock it bulk-buys from manufacturers and sells at higher prices to its franchisees.

Three lessons emerge for outsiders doing business in Nigeria. First, be even more careful than usual about your choice of partner. The biggest error a business can make, says a senior executive at a big consumer-goods firm, is to pick an incompetent or dishonest distributor. Even arrangements with a sound local firm can fail if the incentives are wrong. Nando’s, a South African grilled-chicken chain, chose UAC Restaurants, part of a Nigerian conglomerate, to run its franchise, even though UAC owned a fast-growing rival chain, Mr Biggs.

The idea of growing through acquisitions needs to be treated with considerable caution. SABMiller succeeded in other African markets by buying cheap but broken-down breweries and fixing them up. Its purchase of a defunct Nigerian firm also looked a sweet deal. But it soon faced claims for back-pay and unpaid invoices. Its next investment was a brand-new brewery. There are businesses in Nigeria with a solid heritage but it is easy to overpay for them. Tiger Brands, a South African food company, recently wrote off $80m from the value of Dangote Flour, a Nigerian firm it had acquired just two years earlier.

A second error is to assume that a model that works elsewhere will be successful in Nigeria. Woolworths, a South African clothing and food retailer, closed its three shops in Nigeria after less than two years, citing high rents and complex supply-chains as reasons. These problems aside, the firm made too little effort to promote its brand or adapt its wares to local demand. The retailer relied on the changing seasons to boost turnover for clothes but Nigeria’s clothing market had no such natural churn. It is hot all year round.

The third mistake is to run a Nigerian business by remote control. Companies do well by becoming Nigerian. Guinness, brewed in Lagos since the 1960s, has been adopted as a Nigerian brand (only Britain drinks more of the stuff). Nestlé, Unilever and PZ Cussons have been in Nigeria for yonks and have strong local identities. These businesses give power to local managers so they can adapt to shifting conditions, says Ms Games. The success of Shoprite in Nigeria is in part a result of constant tweaks to its supply chain.

If you can make it there…

As understanding of the Nigerian market improves and competition drives down costs, the reach of big consumer-goods brands is likely to increase. Most firms are betting that their revenues will grow faster than GDP. Nestlé’s aim to triple sales volumes in ten years would require it to grow by around 11% a year. Better business conditions will help. The recent privatisation of electricity generation and distribution should bring more reliable power supplies. Bottlenecks at ports may also ease. There is a push to complete a deep-sea port away from Lagos’s congested city centre by 2018 or 2019, says Mr Pierre of Maersk.

In some ways African markets can leapfrog economies that developed earlier. Thirteen years after MTN won its licence, there are now around 115m mobile phones in use in Nigeria. Access to the internet—and thus to online retailers—is growing rapidly. Jumia has found that each personal computer from which online orders are made is linked to many account holders. It implies that the firm’s potential market is “not just someone with a PC but someone who knows someone”, says Mr Hodara. The pool of online shoppers will deepen as smartphones become cheaper.

Nigeria’s population is likely to overtake America’s by 2045, according to projections by the United Nations. Some firms are already preparing the ground. Unilever is trying out a scheme it developed in India to reach remote markets. It employs as local agents women who understand the area’s languages, customs and social networks. It is also working to bring more of its suppliers into Nigeria to cut freight costs.

The pace of formal retail development, though slow, is picking up, as money for African malls floods into private-equity and property funds. It is likely that in the next two years at least 200,000 square metres of retail space will be completed in Lagos, Abuja and other Nigerian cities, says Leonard Michau of Broll, a South African property firm. That is the equivalent of ten malls the size of Ikeja or the Palms.

Yet such is the growth in consumer demand that it is unlikely shop-building will keep pace. So e-commerce is likely to grab a bigger share of sales in Nigeria than in richer economies. Jumia is in eight African markets, having recently expanded into three new ones. It has been in Nigeria only two years but the country is crucial to its success because it provides the scale Jumia needs. It is also the best testing ground for new ventures, says Mr Hodara. “If it works in Nigeria, you can do it anywhere.”

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Written by enfoquec on August 21st, 2014

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What China wants   no comments

Posted at 9:11 pm in the places I would like to go

WITHIN Asia, it is Chinese activity, not Chinese inactivity, that has people worried, and their concern is understandable. Perhaps most provocative is China’s devotion to the “nine-dash line”, an ill-defined swish of the pen around the South China Sea. Within this perimeter, China claims all the dry land and, it appears, all the water and seabed too; by way of contrast, the rules of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) would tend to see quite a lot of those things as subject to claims from other countries. Speaking in June at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual regional-security shindig in Singapore, Wang Guanzhong, a Chinese general, made it clear that although China respected UNCLOS, the convention could not apply retroactively: the nine-dash line was instituted in the 1940s and the islands of the South China Sea have been Chinese for 2,000 years.

Others in China have been blunter. Wu Shicun, head of the National Institute for South China Seas Studies, based on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, recently pointed out that UNCLOS was developed under Western guidance and that, looking to the long term, “we should rebuild through various methods of regional co-operation a more reasonable, fairer and more just international maritime order that is guided by us.” Not surprisingly, this has caused concern in Washington. “How much of the temple do they actually want to tear down?” asks Douglas Paal, a former American official now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Probably not all that much, for now. But “China gets it that being a great power is messy, and involves trampling on a few flowers,” says Lyle Goldstein of America’s Naval War College. “It is a price the Chinese are willing to pay.” Rules such as those which say the nine-dash line must be respected might be acceptable for the small fry. But as China’s then foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, vocally pointed out at a meeting of regional powers in Hanoi in 2010, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is a fact.”

Militarily, this is indeed the case. China’s armed forces are, if not technologically first-rate, certainly large and impressive, not least because they include a nuclear-missile force. But some of Mr Yang’s small countries have a big friend. With troops and bases in Japan and South Korea, America has been the dominant power of the western Pacific for 70 years. Its regional presence has not declined much since it won the cold war a quarter of a century ago. On a trip to Asia in 2011 Barack Obama announced a “pivot” of his country’s policy away from the Middle East and towards Asia.

China’s leaders are convinced that America is determined to prevent their country from increasing its strategic and military influence in Asia—that it is trying to contain China as it once sought to contain and eventually crush the Soviet Union. The irony is that China is the only country that really believes the pivot is happening. South-East Asian nations express a fair amount of scepticism at the idea that America’s attention has been newly fixed on their region, and his opponents in America claim Mr Obama has done far too little to follow through on what he said in 2011.

That said, the recent Shangri-La Dialogue did nothing to dispel China’s fears. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, offered to assist China’s neighbours with military hardware, and has been pushing, within the constraints of Japan’s pacifist post-war constitution, for a more robust defence policy in the region. In his first year in office Mr Abe visited every member of the Association of South-East Asian Nations. America’s secretary of defence, Chuck Hagel, endorsed Mr Abe’s ideas at Shangri-La, accusing China of “destabilising unilateral actions”.

China has been assertive in the South China Sea for decades. Alastair Iain Johnston of Harvard University argues that recent changes have not always been in the degree of this assertiveness but in the level of interest Western media take in it and the narratives they create. Others, though, see a distinct hardening of the position since Mr Xi came to power. Recent moves to dominate the seas within the “first island chain” that runs from Okinawa through Taiwan to the Spratlys (see map) have alienated almost all the country’s neighbours. “It would be hard to construct a foreign policy better designed to undermine China’s long-term interests,” argues Brad Glosserman of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a think-tank.

The moves are undoubtedly motivated in part by a desire to control the resources of the sea bed. But China itself does not see them as straightforward territorial expansionism. Chinese leaders believe their own rhetoric about the islands of the East and South China Seas having always been part of their territory–a territory that, since the death of Mao, they have chosen to define as almost the empire’s maximum extent under the Qing dynasty, rather than its more modest earlier size. And if they are expressing this territorial interest aggressively, they are behaving no worse—in their eyes, better—than the only other power they see as their match. The Chinese note that America is hardly an unsullied protector of that temple of the global international order; it enjoys the great-power prerogatives and dispensations they seek for their own nation. Disliking the restraints of international treaties perhaps even more than China does, America has not itself ratified UNCLOS. With a handful of allies it rode roughshod over the international legal system to invade Iraq.

China might also note parallels between its ambitions and those of America’s in days gone by. Although America waited until the early 20th century to take on a global role, it defined an ambitious regional role a hundred years earlier. In 1823 James Monroe laid out as policy a refusal to countenance any interference in the Western hemisphere by European nations; all incursions would be treated as acts of aggression. Conceptually, what China wants in East Asia seems akin to a Monroe Doctrine: a decrease in the influence of external powers that would allow it untroubled regional dominance. The difference is that the 19th-century Americas did not have any home-grown powers to challenge the United States, and most of its nations were quite content with the idea of keeping European great powers out of the area. At least in its early years, they were the doctrine’s beneficiaries, not its subjects.

China is not completely uncompromising. Along its land borders it has let some disputes fade away and offered a bit of give and take. But this is in part because the South and East China Seas are seen as more strategically important. A key part of this strategic importance is the possibility that, eventually, the question of Taiwan’s sovereignty will come to a head; it is in effect protecting its flanks in case of a future clash with America on the matter. The ever-volatile situation in North Korea could also create a flashpoint between the two states.

When Mr Xi said, at his 2013 California summit with Mr Obama, that “the vast Pacific has enough space for two large countries like the United States and China,” it was an expression not so much of the possibility of peaceful coexistence that must surely come from being separated by 10,000km of water, as of the idea that the western Pacific was a legitimate Chinese sphere of influence.

And if Mr Xi’s words, repeated to America’s secretary of state, John Kerry, in Beijing in July, seemed to imply a symmetry between the countries, China knows that, in fact, it enjoys various asymmetric advantages. For one, it is a unitary actor. It can drive wedges between America and its allies in the region. Hugh White, an Australian academic, argued in a recent article that, by threatening other Asian countries with force, “China confronts America with the choice between deserting its friends and fighting China.”

China’s armed forces are much less proficient than America’s. But China enjoys the advantage of playing at home. America can dominate these seas only through naval and air operations. If Chinese anti-ship missiles present a serious threat to such operations they can greatly reduce America’s ability to project power, without putting China to the expense of developing a navy of its own remotely so capable. Thus the military forces of the two sides are not as unbalanced as one might think by simply counting carrier groups (of which China is building its first, whereas America has ten, four of them in the Pacific).

China also thinks there is an asymmetry of will. It sees a war-weary America as unlikely to spend blood and treasure defending uninhabited rocks of no direct strategic importance. America may speak loudly, but its big stick will remain unwielded. China’s people, on the other hand, their views shaped not just by propaganda but also by a nationalism that needs scant encouragement, look on the projection of power in the China seas very favourably. And its military-industrial complex yearns to be paid to build bigger, better sticks of its own. Even if party leaders wanted to succeed in their stated desire for a peaceful rise and to remain within international law, the way they have shaped the spirit of their country would not necessarily let them.

This is especially true when it comes to Japan, the country which took on the role of regional power in Asia when China was laid low in the 19th century, and with which relations would always be most vexed. The vitriolic propaganda against the Japanese in Chinese media scarcely needs official prompting; Chinese suffering under Japan’s cruel occupation is well remembered. Japan is a useful whipping boy to distract attention from the party’s inadequacies. China’s leaders have legitimate security concerns and a right to seek a larger international role for their nation but, obsessed with their own narrative of victimhood, they do not see that they themselves are becoming Asia’s bullies. 

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Written by enfoquec on August 21st, 2014

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Israel seeks only to survive – Chicago Sun   no comments

Posted at 9:11 pm in the places I would like to go

By U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren

August 21, 2014 3:14PM

It was Friday night, the beginning of the Jewish Shabbat (Sabbath), and our host family had graciously invited us to join them for dinner.

Before the meal, the parents proudly welcomed their 20-year-old son who was back from the Gaza front for the weekend. A member of the Israeli military, he faced death every day and was grieving his good friend who was recently killed.

The parents prayed, sang and blessed their son as he headed back to the front to defend his country and protect his family. Like all parents, they love their child but worry for his future, and for the future of their nation.

Our dinner with this Jewish family in Jerusalem underlined the struggles, hopes and fears of modern-day Israelis whose heritage extends back thousands of years.

This meal was part of a whirlwind trip to Israel, sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, which I participated in this month along with several Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

So what did the group and I learn?

First, we saw the immense gratitude Israel had for the friendship between our two nations and for our willingness to travel there during grim circumstances in order to gain first-hand knowledge of their struggles. During such a difficult time in their nation’s history, our alliance is immeasurably important to the only truly free democracy in the Middle East. Although other nations in the region and in Europe have soured on their relationship with Israel, Israel urged us to tell those we represent to remember our close ties and long history as partners.

One example of this is our support for the innovative Iron Dome defense program, which has exceeded expectations in deflecting and destroying rockets from neighboring enemies like the U.S.-designated terrorist group Hamas. My colleagues in Congress and I were proud to have passed additional financial support for the program in July.

The Iron Dome’s technology has saved hundreds, if not thousands, of Israeli lives, which is incredible considering many of these rockets are launched only tens of miles away. This defensive program has also prevented a more drawn-out Israeli ground offensive which would have increased causalities on both sides.

We met with many of the nation’s top leaders, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, members of his cabinet, military leaders and our counterparts in the legislature. Many are frustrated at the messages Western countries are sending to terrorist groups like Hamas who have no qualms about exploiting civilians in warfare. If these groups store weapons caches’ or launch rockets from a hospital or a school, any retaliation by Israel is criticized.

Israel tries to notify these targets, which house rockets or weapons, through “roof knocks” or leaflet drops ahead of time. Israel acts to get civilians out of harm’s way, while Hamas acts to put them in harm’s way.

By condemning Israel, Western nations are encouraging Hamas’ tactics because they are effective in influencing Western perception of the conflict.

While traveling throughout the country, it became clear that Israel faces existential threats every day. This country, barely larger than New Jersey, must be vigilant as Iran to the east and Hezbollah to the north, both of whom have called for the complete elimination of Israel, threaten nuclear and conventional warfare. It was again made crystal clear that the United States must never allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, for the sake of our ally Israel and for the stability of the region and beyond.

But we saw and heard about much more.

We saw Israeli doctors giving care to wounded to Syrian refugees who have been injured in their own civil war. Syria has no love for Israel, but these doctors provide care and abide by their oaths to save lives.

We met with former President, Prime Minister and Nobel laureate Shimon Peres, now 91 years old, whose peace center lies just south of Tel Aviv. He aims to bring together young people on each side of the Israel-Gaza conflict to resolve hostilities and build bridges of understanding.

We saw a host of start-up companies doing very well in spite of the daily conflict raging around them. Israel’s citizens would love to be left alone so they can expand and spread their new ideas in the marketplace, but dangers on all sides hinder economic growth. While American entrepreneurs need certainty that the government won’t slap them with red tape, Israeli businesses need certainty that their neighbors won’t attack them at any turn and destroy their business entirely.

We saw the preservation of a rich cultural and religious heritage, and the protection of religious sites that are central to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. Israel protects pilgrims from across the world with reliable and safe access to these temples, churches, mosques and memorials.

Israeli leaders are forced every day to make hard choices about what needs to be done to protect their citizens and their way of life.

They face tough questions, like: How do you solve the Israeli-Gaza conflict when the actions of Hamas threaten relationships between Palestinian and Israeli leaders? What part does Israel play in the Middle East? How can they pursue productive and peaceful relations with their neighbors who share a common ancestor in Abraham?

There are no easy answers here.

But across the political spectrum of the leaders we met, all are united in their belief that they have a right to exist and thrive.

In Israel, I learned that this tiny nation isn’t looking to expand — just to survive. And they have been helped along by the friendship of the United States.

We must continue to strengthen our cultural, religious and economic ties that bind us together in common purpose.

Randy Hultgren represents Illinois’ 14th U.S. Congressional District.

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Written by enfoquec on August 21st, 2014

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Cool reasons to visit Curacao   no comments

Posted at 8:58 pm in the places I would like to go

Affectionately dubbed “Holland of the Tropics,” Curacao is a melting pot on bold display with more than 100 nationalities calling the cosmopolitan island home. Forty- four miles off the Venezuelan coast and a three-hour hop from Miami, the island is below the hurricane belt making it a popular choice for travelers who can do without the angst of weather delays. Thirty-eight curvy beaches ring the coast. With a pastel-painted promenade, delightfully narrow streets and gabled colonial architecture in the capital city of Willemstad, Curacao is Caribbean chic at its finest. For an authentic slice of island life, check out our list of the coolest must-dos in Curacao.

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Time travel

Eye-candy for photographers, this 19th-century structure was built to protect the island from pirates. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage site boasts unrivalled views of Willemstad and more than 50 cannons still inside its coral walls. Reimagined by the Renaissance Curacao Resort, the former soldiers’ barracks now house designer boutiques, restaurants and bars where funky bands play after dark. For an afternoon respite, the resort’s clever faux-sand beach slopes into a pool filled with saltwater siphoned from the ocean right behind it.

Idyllic dives

Good-sized barracudas follow divers at Punt’i Piku across the channel from Barbara Beach; fishermen shoot the breeze at one end of Daaibooi Beach as snorkelers cavort with sponges and star corals below the surface. At Divers Leap, sea horses perch near the sea wall that is spectacular with an abundance of deep-water fish. A convenient home base for a diving vacay, Hilton Curacao makes it easy with “Dare to you Dive” that includes the room, snacks and excursions organized by Caribbean Sea Sports, the resort’s new PADI-certified dive center.

Local art

In an 18th-century plantation house overlooking the salt pans of St. Marie and the flamingo sanctuary of Willibrordus, Nena Sanchez Gallery is a vibrant feast for the eyes. Inspired by the flowers, cottages, banana trees and people of the island, her brightly-colored paintings and statuesque sculptures are popular buys with tourists and locals who also flock to her “Paint to Relax” workshop held every second Sunday of the month. A second gallery is now open in Willemstad.

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Taste the melting pot

Easy to remember because its address is also its name, No. 5 at 5 Penstraat — one of the most historic streets on the island — comes with a Belgian chef, a Dutch owner and a menu that marries French flavors with Italian recipes. A jazzy soundtrack, discreet service, and a shareable steak grilled medium-rare with a pesto swirl alongside have earned the tiny eatery high marks for a romantic dinner for two. East of the Queen Emma Bridge, Kome is owned by a pair of culinary whirling dervishes from Florida who love showing off their frenetic exhibition kitchen to hungry diners. Get there early for the fried chicken and Funchi Fries (think French fries but with a smooth middle made from corn meal) and the addictive tomato jam (like ketchup but better) made with onions, nutmeg, cloves, hot peppers and cinnamon.

Floating market

Arrive before 7 a.m., when Venezuelan schooners unpack their wooden fishing boats that double as their living quarters. Setting up shop along the water on the Punda side of Willemstad, rows of fruits, vegetables, herbs and fish plucked from the sea are for sale at the Floating Market. Next door in the big round building, vendors in the New Market hawk everything from handicrafts to homemade honey in reusable bottles.

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Eat like a local

Behind the Post Office in Willemstad, Marshe Bieuw is a no-frills food court dishing up ‘krioyo’ or local fare served at communal tables decorated with jars of pickled onions and hot peppers. Hearty plates of goat stew, stewed chicken and kingfish with sides of plantains and funchi will run USD$22 for two, including tip and drinks.

Cheese classes

A big hit with aficionados who crave the distinctive cheeses of Holland and Switzerland, Royal Dutch Cheesery in the Renaissance Mall now offers cheese classes and wine pairings. Palate pleasing for newbies and connoisseurs, reservations are recommended as classes fill up fast.

Beach getaway

Take the air-conditioned bus from Willemstad (USD$1.50 for a one-way fare) to Jan Thiel Beach. East of Willemstad, the beach is popular with families who come to enjoy lunch at the Papagayo Beach Club where the fresh tuna salad — ask for the vanilla-tinged salad dressing — is divine. At the dive shop on the sand, snorkel equipment can be rented and day tours arranged.

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Escape the crowds

Heading to Westpunt towards Mount Christoffel, the island’s highest point, the scene is less crowded than at the tourist meccas on the opposite end of the island. Keep your eyes open for the rock walls that were built by slaves in the 1700s and their small houses that are now museums. Snack bars serve iguana soup; gaggles of goats cross the highway, and plenty of small beaches make for lively distractions. A stop at Shete Boka National Park is worthwhile for the uninterrupted vistas of the rugged coast and a seat at a picnic table, where sharing a salted fish sandwich with a drizzle of Willy’s piquant pepper sauce is as local as it gets.

No-frills Friday

Open only on Friday, Equus is the neighborhood joint of choice for juicy skewers of beef and chicken grilled on a brick fire pit. Buckets of beer, garlic-smeared toast and dipping sauces come with the long strands of cubed meat that dangle from giant hooks hung over each table. With Country Western tunes punctuating the air, no menus, no cutlery and a cash-only policy, dinner is an un-guide-book gem. Low tech without a website or Facebook page, the best option for directions is via email:

Throw one back

The oldest bar in Curacao is also one of the most charming. In the non-touristy neighborhood of Otrabanda, Netto Bar has been around for six decades and although it’s a bit worn around the edges, shots of the signature green rum or Ròm Bèrdè still fuels sprightly conversations about football and politics among locals who gather every day at Happy Hour.

Jazzy August

For the fifth year, the North Sea Jazz Festival heats up the island on August 29 and 30 with marquee names like soul superstar Smoky Robinson and hip crooner Bruno Mars. Concerts are staged at the World Trade Center with after-parties island-wide until the sun comes up.

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Written by enfoquec on August 19th, 2014

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Tourism insights from around the world   no comments

Posted at 8:58 pm in the places I would like to go

Omar Khedr

By Omar Khedr

Changing perceptions and successfully rebounding an entire industry is generally a herculean challenge.  Representing approximately 6.5% of Egypt’s total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as well as being an important source of foreign exchange, Egypt’s travel and tourism industry forms a vital bedrock of her economy. The industry benefits from several competitive advantages. Endowed with eight UNESCO World Heritage sights and unparalleled historic landmarks such as the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Temple of Abu Simbel, and the great Luxor Temple Complex; Egypt is a magnet for visitors from across the world. The country also boasts a rich cultural diversity, hosting Al-Azhar University, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, as well as the recently restored Maimonides’ Synagogue – named after the Jewish court physician of Sultan Salahuddin Ayub. Egypt’s travel and tourism industry is further bolstered by the country’s location; positioned at a strategic crossroad between the Mediterranean, Africa and Asia.

Despite these favourable factors, since 2011, a heightened level of volatility due to a rapidly changing political and security climate has characterised Egypt’s travel and tourism industry. In the past three years, the number of international tourist visitors to Egypt has fallen from 14.7 million in 2010 to 9.1 million in 2013. Just as grim is the World Economic Forum’s study of global tourism destinations, which ranked Egypt an upsetting 85th overall and 10th among countries in the Middle East. However, Egypt is not the only country in the world to experience setbacks and a challenging operating environment while attempting to revitalise its tourism industry. By adopting certain best practices from countries that have successfully turned around their travel and tourism sectors, Egyptian policy makers can encourage new visitors. Furthermore, by taking a few additional measures, Egyptian business leaders and policy makers can more fully capitalise on the growing number of tourists coming from emerging markets and the GCC – opening a new avenue for growth.

Ranked 73rd overall in the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism index, Peru experienced its own volatile period in the 1990s as the country faced a war on terrorism as well as undertaking a government transition in the early 2000s.  Peru with competitive advantages that, like Egypt, include unrivalled historic sites such as Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines and 11 UNESCO World Heritage sights – began marketing itself by building a unique brand. Policymakers and business leaders in Peru combined the country’s historic landmarks, its cultural roots, along with its unique physical geography that offers beach resorts along the coast, ski resorts along the Andes Mountains and hiking trails along the Amazonian rain forest in an attempt to entice a greater influx of visitors. While tourism has been a strategic objective of Egypt’s economic development, policy makers have not sufficiently prioritised linking the different clusters of Egypt’s tourism sector. According to Michael Rochat, the General Director of the Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne – one of the world’s leading hospitality schools, hospitality has always been “a link between people and culture”. As Figure 1 illustrates, Egypt’s tourism infrastructure is currently ranked 90th globally, preventing tourists from connecting easily with Egypt’s cultural sites that are located far away from major airports in Cairo, Alexandria, and Sharm El-Sheikh. In comparison, Jordan is ranked at 69th and Lebanon at 27th in tourism infrastructure, highlighting the distance that needs to be addressed. By tackling the infrastructure issue and by building a unique brand that highlights and connects the diversity of Egypt’s cultural sites – Egyptian decision makers can enrich the cultural experience of international visitors as well as increase Egypt’s tourism percentage of GDP.


Based on data released by Egypt’s tourism related ministries, a significant portion of Egypt’s inbound tourists in 2012 originated from emerging markets. Cumulatively, the top five emerging markets represented 38.9% of total international visitors to Egypt in 2012. Russia, in particular, accounted for 21.7% of tourists with more than 2.5 million over that year. Furthermore, in recent years, tourists from emerging economies have been a source of positive growth for the sector. In the six years to 2013, tourists from emerging markets increased at an average annual rate of 8.0%. In comparison, during this same period, inbound tourists from all countries decreased at an annualised rate of 3.1%. Consequently, travellers from these rapidly growing markets can form an important avenue of stability and growth over the next few years.

Being increasingly vital for a rebound in Egypt’s travel and tourism industry, Egyptian policy leaders can take additional steps to fully capitalise on visitors from emerging markets. As Figure 2 illustrates, Egypt’s overall occupancy rates is at 44.5% much lower than peer countries, despite Egypt being ranked as the fourth most price competitive country in the world. The situation is worse in Luxor, were the occupancy rate has fallen by more than 15% since 2010, according to data provided by the Egyptian Hotels Federation. Policy makers must do more to stress the value proposition to tourist agencies in these rapidly developing countries. For instance, compared with countries that, like Egypt, host one of the new Wonders of the World – Egypt is the most affordable according to the hotel price index. Beyond promoting the affordability argument, Egyptian decision makers should also improve the tourism eco-system. One way to do so is to increase the number of ATMs across the country. Currently, Egypt has one of the lowest ATMs per capita globally. Increasing the amount of ATMs will provide tourists with greater accessibility to their funds, which will increase their economic activity within the country.


In a recent report on one of Egypt’s key industries, researchers at Harvard University’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness highlight that Egyptian policy makers must forge a clear vision for economic improvement that can be sustainable across political and business cycles. By prioritising the tourism sector and taking concrete action to encourage more international visitors, Egyptian decision makers can begin to turn around this important industry.

Omar Khedr is an analyst at IBISWorld, a graduate of New York University, and currently a member of the United Nations Association of Young Professionals. 

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Written by enfoquec on August 19th, 2014

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