15 February 2012


Whispers among senior Arab officials that Qatar Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem Al-Thani has offered $150 million to Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed Muallem during a recent visit to the Qatari capital if the Syrian official remained in Doha and "separated himself from the regime". One comment was that, if true, the hurried pro-active Sheikh may not have taken into account that the gloomy-looking Syrian Minister is very closely guarded by his compatriot colleagues traveling with him and -- more to the point -- Waleed Muallem is by nature not the type to rebel.


With his appointment as U.N. Special Representative to Lebanon, Sir Derek Plumbly returns to a very familiar region, perhaps with some sense of nostalgia. He started his career in Her Majesty's Service in Saudi Arabia and Cairo (where he met and married his intellectual wife Nadia Gohar) when he returned later as his country's Ambassador. Of more interest to intrigued Lebanese, he first arrived for training in the Arabic language at a British Foreign and Commonwealth Institute in the scenic mountainous Druze town of Shemlan, famously known as the Spy School. That need be of no embarrassment to Sir Derek, who could jovially speak the local term: "Madrassat Al-Gawasis." That, in fact, would make him very welcome in the current status of Beirut.


If Yemeni perennial President Ali Abdullah Saleh is really traveling to be treated medically in a foreign hospital, it means that during 30 years of his rule not one simple reliable hospital was built in the country. If he's using medical leave as a pretext to go to a safer place, it means after 30 years he cannot find one simple safe spot for himself in the country he had totally controlled.


An interesting message from Israeli President Shimon Peres, who is very well connected internationally and usually better informed than most Middle East politicians. In a recent address to the Iranian people, he said: "We were not born enemies and there is no need to live as enemies. Don't allow the banners of enmity cast its shadow on your historic heritage. Your people look forward to peace, not to conflicts and wars." Was it a general good will message or a special signal? To whom, in particular?


"Life became more difficult for the thousands of diplomats and contractors left behind. The salad bar at the embassy dining hall ran low. Sometimes there was no sugar or Splenda for coffee. On chicken-wing night, wings were rationed at six a person."!
-- Reported by the N.Y. Times


Only now we know via a tempting photo that Brazilian model of German descent, Gisele Bundchen, has been a U.N. Ambassador for Environment since 2009. When we spotted her at different occasions, we had hesitated to approach her for lack of any pretext. Now, we could rush to discuss the ozone layer, penguins at risk, and -- more important -- the already forgotten "Let's seal the deal."! The most popular Brazilian export apparently had to display her credentials by visiting U.N. Environment Headquarters in Nairobi to meet and greet officials and pose for some appropriate photos. To display her interest, she visited a location where electricity was produced from purportedly right material and made a statement to the effect that without electricity, there would be no life. Good thinking. Except that Gisele (that's her original name) had no clue about the electricity blackouts all over her host country. It didn't matter much to her actual host, the German head of UNEP, who was certainly "sehr glucklich sein," indeed felt "quietschfidel" to welcome such a sun-tanned beauty as his own Goodwill Ambassador. We hope Ms. Bundchen will have time to guide us in a confidential briefing in New York, particularly during days when eager weather broadcasters declare the quality of air unsatisfactory.


Judge Bellmare, who is leaving as Prosecutor General for the International Tribune on Lebanon's assassinated Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, made a farewell visit to Beirut. He is the THIRD chief investigator to leave without submitting any detailed documented report on that terrorist crime. A Prime Minister of a country was murdered in broad daylight at 1pm while driving on a most visible highway of the Lebanese capital and 7 years later, there are no clear documented indications and no verdicts. Those who met the French Canadian Prosecutor said he was very emotional at his last visit, very grateful for the welcome he received from Lebanon officials. Above all, he seemed to care for his own health. When at a dinner a toast was made to his future success, he responded briefly that his most important wish was good health. Sante.


The lady is retired now. But when she was an influential senior U.N. official, she was really really attractive. That's why a Typo error at the time made a splash within a small circle of gate-keepers. She wrote to an equally dynamic colleague who had just taken over a usual letter of congratulations, suggesting that they could be jointly effective if they remained "in couch"! Clearly, she meant "in touch."


Our friend helpfully updated us on the following in the animal kingdom:

  • a cat has 32 muscles in each ear
  • a goldfish has a memory span of 3 seconds
  • a shark is the only fish that can blink with both eyes
  • a snail can sleep for three years
  • an ostrich eye is bigger than its brain
  • in the last 40 years, no new animals have been domesticated
  • there are more chickens than people.


A game of Arabic words is played political by those welcoming or criticizing the role of the tiny oil rich Gulf state of Qatar in regional events, from Libya to Syria to Afghanistan. When the so-called Arab Spring, now turning out to be an Islamist one, started in Tunisia, rebellious masses chanted a famous line in a poem by Tunisian poet Abul Qasem El-Chabbi: "If the people determined to gain life, destiny will respond." Destiny in Arabic is "Qadar." Only one letter of difference with Qatar. Adversaries, however, have shifted the word "life" with "Kharab," destruction. Let's wait and see.


A full page in the N.Y. Times on New Years Day listed "Imagine Peace" in various languages. We are not sure about several other languages, but the one in Arabic was most definitely flawed -- actually meaningless. It said "Ihlem Selem." Could have been many options -- "Ihlem" means Dream, not Imagine. Also, the two words don't gel in Arabic. Who was the advertising group? Some vague reference. Who actually paid for that expensive one page? Not clear. What peace were they talking about? Where? Amongst whom? Was it general world peace? A remembrance of John Lennon: Pity? All that money and such a great cause lost in translation.


New Year TV in the Middle East was entirely devoted to stargazers predicting events in 2012. One claimed that two more Arab heads of state will be leaving, another thought the President of Lebanon will not complete his term. The most popular were female stars, elegantly dressed and heavily made up, who delved in international as well as local politics. One said that a serious event will happen to the ruling family in Qatar but would not go into details; she would only divulge her vision to the Sheikh's family if a private plane was dispatched to ride her up. Perhaps the Prime Minister would personally volunteer. A former long-serving Lebanese Foreign Minister recounted that during a pan-Arab meeting, the ministers were given an appointment with the King at 7pm. When they arrived, however, they were asked to wait. It transpired that His Majesty was very busy with his own stargazer, who had suggested that their Excellencies would constitute a bad omen at the designated time; half an hour later would be safer. So it was.


During continued demonstrations in Egypt, as individuals connect and masses express joint positions, a new vocabulary evolves. Describing men, in Egyptian lingo these days, a "spider man" means a drug user; "Excellence" means very important; "a man to the last opening in his belt" means someone determined to get to the end; "hungarian" means swift; "a biscuit" means fragile; "waterman" is inclined to get drunk; "solitary" is careless; "relax" means, well, relaxed; "Mizmay" loves women (perhaps refers to Egyptianized French for "Mazemoselle"?!; "yale" is, like the locked, closed mind; "sujuk" draws on a spicy Armenian sausage for someone with a fiery character. "See You Yesterday" describes someone with no sense of time. What about women? The same, only in a whisper.


John Lennon's famous suggestion to "Imagine no possessions" will sound ridiculously farcical when we know that he had accumulated over $300,000,000. It's easy if you can!


During the Security Council debate on Syrian developments, its government's Permanent Representative Bashar Jaafari, started by quoting the most famous Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani: "Damascus, the treasure of my dreams; should I complain to you about Arabism or about Arabs?" Qatari Prime Minister, who headed the Arab Ministerial Committee on Syria, and Nabil El-Araby, Secretary General of the Arab League, both responded by praising the poet but explaining that he was always for freedom of his people. Pity that an outstanding poet -- known originally for his liberal love sonnets -- is being claimed by the Syrian regime and acclaimed by Arab officials -- both of whom he sarcastically denounced. A brilliant native of Damascus, Nizar Qabbani lived in Beirut -- in semi-exile -- and died in London. Just after the debate, his niece, Syrian/British intellectual Rana, issued a statement decrying the attempt to exploit a dead poet's legacy.


After 17 years of dealing with Somalia from Nairobi, Special Representative Augustine Mahiga returned to that country's capital. The last U.N. official to operate from Mogadishu was Ghanian James Gbeho, who headed UNOSOM II but left in early 1995 without a replacement. When UNPOS (Political Office for Somalia) was set up, it remained in Nairobi, although one of the Special Reps was known to spend more time in New York restaurants than in the Kenyan capital; he never tread foot in Mogadishu, although he sampled all the best hotels in interesting countries from Djibouti to Paris and Washington, D.C. Ambassador Mahiga's move to the Somali capital is a welcome step in the right direction, particularly if it was followed by a wider U.N. human development program.


As we reported three months ago, the new head of the World Food Programme (WFP) announced in January is Ertharin Cousin, Chicago native, President Obama's designated U.S. Representative for WFP and FAO in Rome. She only has to cross the street from her Embassy to her new office. Ms. Cousin had also worked for years in the Clinton Administration, including as Deputy Chief of Staff for the National Democratic Committee and White House liaison with the State Department. Her background in combating hunger includes Executive Vice President of "Feeding America," then known as America's Second Harvest, the largest American group in the campaign against hunger. She was prominent in the response to Hurricane Katrina which resulted in the distribution of 62 million pounds of food across the Gulf Coast region. The post is designated jointly by the U.N. Secretary General and F.A.O. Director General. Recently, it has gone to U.S. citizens prompted by the governing party administration. Her predecessor was designated to Kofi Annan by the Bush Administration, while Ms. Cousin -- obviously -- was sponsored by President Obama.


Syria's prolonged stalemate tempted several self-appointed mediators to jump in, mainly with their own interest in mind. Besides the Arab League initiative, which seeks to co-ordinate with the U.N. while careful not to "internationalize" the conflict along Libyan lines, emissaries from East and West were roaming the region throughout the last couple of months. A somewhat farcical move came during an interview with President Bashar Assad's uncle, long-exiled Rifaat on al-Arabiyah TV, when he suggested that a solution would be for a member of the same family to take over. For institutional memory, Rifaat was the regime's main henchman. Lebanese victims would remember well with horror his Al-Fursan group roaming the streets of Beirut. He was reputed to have been the main enforcer of what Thomas Friedman designated as "Hama Rules" whereby neighbourhoods were totally destroyed. In the process, he enriched himself and an increasing number of children for whom he not only found millions but doctorate degrees. In brief, he finally got kicked out by his own brother, President Hafiz Assad, who suspected him of trying to take over. Rifaat found luxurious refuge in Marbella, Spain. In the interview, he denied any militant role during his time with the regime, stressing he was merely an educator. His militias were mainly established merely to "teach." When asked whether he was proposing himself as an alternative, he demurred, merely hinting that he would accept a national duty. Otherwise, any of his children, all millionaires with doctorate degrees, will do. As to making money in trading with influence, he insisted that he started with very little and was helped by "national capital" to arrive at a "respectable amount," somehow gaining about $250 million. Not bad for a former Colonel of the Syrian army.


Spain's Lt. General Alberto Asarta has just concluded his term as Commanding Officer of UNIFIL in South Lebanon. He will be succeeded by Italian Lt. General Paolo Serra, who had served in several other U.N. Peacekeeping operations, including Bosnia and Kosovo. General Asarta's predecessor was also Italian. Both Spain and Italy are very popular with all Lebanese factions, particularly that they both share a long history of friendship across the Mediterranean.


From "ODE TO THE WEST WIND" by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! if even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skyey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

* * *

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is;
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an extinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unwakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?


"Waves of change are surging around us. If we navigate wisely, we can create a more secure and sustainable future for all. The United Nations is the ship to navigate these waters."
-- Secretary Ban Ki-moon


During aesthetic times, BB in France referred to Brigitte Bardot. There was a song about her and many movies since "And God Created Woman." But now, it's business times. Abbreviations would apply to a business executive, a firm, or a Ponzi scheme. In Francophone Africa for example, the Cote d'Ivoire in particular, where there was a prolonged war over who's President, BB goes for the two French companies that dominate business: Bouygues and Bollar. Hence the special welcome by French President Sarkozy to President Ouattara late January in Paris. An added bonus was $614 million authorized by former French Finance Minister, current International Monetary Fund Executive Director, Ms. Lagarde, "to help the country recover from months of post election conflict." However, there is a pending issue of who would benefit from about $208 million in taxes from the cocoa harvest of the last two years. Plus ca change...


A colleague who spotted comedian Jackie Mason on a gloomy December day in New York could hardly recognize him walking down Broadway and 63rd Street. He worn an old oversized outfit with disconnected colours; his hair was white gray, he could hardly walk. A month later he saw him once more but in South Beach Miami. Totally different. His hair dyed, he was dressed up in a summery colourful outfit, chatting vividly with three other friends at an outdoor ice cream parlour. He often stood up energetically to greet passerby who recognized him. What a difference sunshine makes.


During the Royal wedding in Jordan by Prince Hamzah to fellow skydiver -- and tribal commoner -- Basmah El-Atoom, it was noted how the Hashemite family was always keen on showing deference and respect while confident of their own stature. While the Prince insisted on handing over the dishes himself, it was within the perspective of a leader serving his followers, according to tribal saying: "The master of the crowd is their servant." Someone told the story that when late King Hussein sought for his son, Prince Abdullah, the hand of Rania, then a bank accountant, he told her commoner father earnestly but with a wide smile: "My son comes from a good family; ask about us"!


The U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) elected a new Chairman. It was the turn for an Eastern European. When Ambassador Milos Koterec was announced, he repeated the worn out rhetoric about making ECOSOC a "truly meaningful organ" and "to make a difference" while, of course, appealing for a new approach. So, what's new? Milos has been a member of the same council for years, most recently as its senior vice president. If he had anything "new" or "creative" to suggest, he should have already at least proposed it. Indeed, he issued more hot air statements like admonishing ECOSOC to "carve out its niche as the forum for frank, free-flowing discussions on development co-operation." Don't hold your breath.


Figure out the following utterance by the useless (and outgoing, we hope) V.J. Nambiar: "Thirdly, he (the Secretary General) is expected to continue to focus on empowering like departments as well as on leveraging organizational synergy by streamlining work process and minimizing institutional duplication." What does he really mean?!


* "Well," said the owl, "What does Crustimoney Proseedcake mean?"
- Said Pooh, "I am a Bear of Little Brains and long words bother me."
* "It means the thing to do."
- "As long as it means that, I don't mind," said Pooh, humbly.
-- A.A. Milne, "Winnie-the-Pooh"


Ambassador Joseph Verner Reed has just become the Dean of U.N. Under-Secretaries General. By signing a new contract in January 2012, he has been serving at that level with various capacities for 30 years. A diplomat's diplomat, he moved from the U.S. Mission to the U.N. under President Reagan's Administration to take over as U.N. Under-Secretary General for Political and General Assembly Affairs. One of the rare Republicans to join the U.N. Secretariat, Ambassador Reed displayed admirable international sensibilities which gained him overwhelming, perhaps unanimous support of the international community. His dignity and courage in performing his U.N. functions were exemplary in the late Eighties when a position by the U.S. President caused a meeting of the General Assembly to move to Geneva. In 1992, newly-appointed Secretary General Dr. Boutros-Ghali held Ambassador Reed in the highest esteem, keeping him close to his office and residence, referring to him jovially in Egyptian terminology: "Safir Youssef." Both Secretaries General Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon valued the experienced advice of one of the most accomplished U.S. diplomats who served his own country best when he served the U.N. with honourable distinction.


Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter Steve Stecklow, who wrote a series of prize-winning stories on U.N.-related issues at The Wall Street Journal, will be moving back to London, joining Reuters at its Headquarters. He had been based in London, moving around Europe, for the Journal when he ably pursued some of the most interesting issues confronting Secretary General Kofi Annan's second term. One of the awards was by the U.N. Correspondent's Association at its annual dinner to the WSJ team that devoted creative energy and time to pursue documented violations of U.N. rules and regulations. Steve moved to Boston for a while mainly dealing with Non-Governmental Organizations and civic groups' activities for the Journal. His return to London to work with Thomson-Reuters offers Steve a new opportunity to return to an increasingly interesting European area of operation, while giving Reuters the benefits of one of the most professional reporters. Actually, in his early career, Steve worked as a stringer in Philadelphia. He also worked for the Philadelphia Enquirer, The Washington Star, The Philadelphia Bulletin, and the Atlantic City Press. He has also taught investigative journalism at Boston University and Emerson College. His investigations have covered the globe. This past year at The Wall Street Journal, he spearheaded a series that documented the use of Western and Chinese technology by repressive regimes to crack down on dissidents. In 2007, Steve shared the Pulitzer Prize for public service with three Wall Street Journal colleagues for a series on backdated stock options. The stories sparked numerous federal investigations and indictments. In 2003, Steve and Alix Freedman, now Reuters' Global Editor for Ethics and Standards, were finalists for a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for their series on corruption in the United Nations' oil-for-food program. Steve also won or shared the George Polk Award three times, including in 1996, for exposing a massive Ponzi scheme in a story edited by Steve Adler. A dual U.S.-British citizen, Steve is currently living outside Boston, Mass. He will start his new assignment and relocate within the next few months to London, where he previously lived for seven years.


What's a man? What's he got? He got himself. That's huge. It's your whole world, man. Better make the best of it.

Henry Hammond was a private driver. A decent man. Never any foul words; not a single mean streak. We met him in his early eighties. Courteous, clever, and gently outspoken if a point needed to be made. Grew up in the segregated South then moved to Brooklyn, New York. He lived within his means, accepted gratuities graciously with his dignity intact. Always on time. Always to the point. He drove a Rolls Royce for two decades. Tall, slim and alert, you wouldn't know he was in his eighties. His uniform hat was a natural. He kept it on except when welcoming a lady. Henry had an eye for "the ladies;" he joked how you can't live with them, can't live without them. When entrusted to drive young Habib Sanbar, then a newcomer to Manhattan, Henry was more of a thoughtful affectionate advisor; protective, gently prodding without being presumptuous. Even when he approached his hundredth year, Henry's human value -- and values -- never diminished. Habib and family remained in regular touch although driving opportunities diminished. Henry Hammond had his admiring family and friends constantly surrounding him, always fondly thinking of him. May his soul rest in peace.