Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Road to Sanaa

So here's the thing…….

President Hadi flees to Saudi Arabia following a coup by the Houthis in Yemen.  But did he in fact allow this coup to take place because he wasn't in control of Yemen at all?  Was Yemen being run in the background by the ousted former President Saleh, who was kicked out in 2011 following arab-spring style demonstrations?

An Al Jazeera documentary, The Road to Sanaa, has shed light on what led up to the apparent 'soft coup' in September 2014 when the Houthis took control of the capital Sanaa without any real opposition from the Government.  I remember at the time being mystified by this turn of events.  What kind of Government simply opens the gate like that unless there is something more sinister going on behind the scenes?

The Al Jazeera investigation centres around the fight for Amran, a city north of the capital and a key gateway to Sanaa for the Saada based Houthis.  Lead by General Al Qushaibi, the Yemeni Army brigade sent in to defend the city, against the Houthis, was actively betrayed by Hadi and his government who, despite a personal pledge to the General to send additional weapons and reinforcements, never did.

In fact, the supply line to the brigade was cut and forces allied to the former President Saleh even switched sides to join the Houthis.  After several months of a long and bloody fight with the brigade's stocks of food and arms dwindling, morale was low and suspicions about what was going on growing.  This was heightened when the Yemeni Defence Minister visited the besieged city…… but instead of visiting General Al Qushaibi and his troops, he visited the Houthis instead!   A clear snub to both Al Qushaibi and the tribal leaders fighting alongside him, and an indication as to which side the government were really on.

The Presidential commission ordered a ceasefire, told Al Qushaibi (pictured left) to leave the city and surrender his weapons to military police.  He refused.  With a ceasefire still in place, the Houthis were tipped off to attack the brigade HQ where Al Qushaibi was holed up with 3 of his officers, after telling his young soldiers to save their lives and flee.  The General was killed and his body not released to his family for another 12 days.  There was clear evidence that he had been gruesomely tortured and brutally killed.

Only two months later in September 2014, the Houthis entered Sanaa and took control of the city.  6 months after that in march 2015, a full scale civil war broke out, Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia and invited the Saudis to launch air strikes on the Houthis with catastrophic consequences for the Yemeni population.  Only 8 months previously he had sacrificed a General and his entire brigade to allow the Houthis to gain ground.

Many of my Yemeni friends are members of the Southern separatist movement, the Hirak Janoubi.  They always told me that Hadi was simply a puppet of former President Saleh.  I often wondered if this was true or their understandable suspicion of a Sanaa north-centric government elite.

However you see it, its an extraordinary about-turn!  After Hadi fled to Aden earlier this year, he held a meeting with tribal leaders at which he told them that Saleh's alliance with the Houthis, backed by Iran, had been responsible for the fall of Sanaa in September last year.  Hadi also accused his predecessor (pictured left) of trying to scupper the transfer of power to him which was backed by the international community, by conspiring with Iran and the Houthis.  

Not only a gateway to Sanaa, Amran was a key political battle ground.  It was a stronghold of the Al-Ahmar family and Sunni Al Islah (Reform) party, who as well as being key opponents and rivals to the Houthis, also participated in the ousting of former President Saleh from power in 2011.  

One of the founders of the Al Islah party was one of Saleh's own cousins, General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, a Major General in the Yemeni Army, whose relationship with the former President had deteriorated over the years, culminating in his pledge to protect the 2011 anti-government demonstrators, alongside General Al Qushaibi.  After Hadi became President, one of the first things he did was to sack Mohsen as part of a military restructuring plan.

Hadi may have been the front man but clearly Saleh was still exerting significant influence over him and the government and military.  Its now widely acknowledged that Saleh's intent was to destabilise Yemen in an effort to remove Hadi and regain power.  Indeed this is why the US imposed sanctions on him in November last year.  

Sadly it came too little too late and we are where we are now - with Yemen in a catastrophic state of crisis, cities completely destroyed, thousands dead and millions now facing famine.  What price the hunger for power?  What and who will be left to rule?  And how, if the country ever finds peace, will the people re-build?

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Commuting in Qatar…pedal power!

When I first came to Qatar, one of the things I missed the most was cycling.  I'd been a committed commuter cyclist in London, loving the daily weave and dodge through the London traffic, literally going into battle with taxis, buses and delivery drivers, all vying for position at traffic lights, cutting the corners of junctions, driving and parking in cycle lanes and trying desperately to prove their wheels are faster than yours…….. until they're stuck in an endless jam along High Holborn and I go sailing past, victorious and not to mention just a little self righteous ;-)

I got to the point that I would cycle every day no matter what the weather -rain, snow, ice…. bring it on.   I loved it.  Loved the challenge, loved the adrenalin, loved the change in my body - id never been so fit, never felt so energetic.  It was fabulous…… and then I moved to Qatar.

Doha is a relatively small, flat city, compared to London of course, and the roads are good and well maintained, although there are endless roadworks everywhere as they try to upgrade, remodel, widen and re-route to keep up with the pace of progress and construction of all things world cup related.  The weather is great pretty much all the time - little rain and certainly no snow or ice.   With the exception of  summer heat, occasional strong winds and the odd sandstorm, its perfect cycling weather for at least 9 months of the year.

So, one might think its the perfect cycling city….. until you venture onto the roads for real and experience the driving.  Only after a couple of days travelling in a cab to work, I decided - theres no way Im cycling here.  Crazy, nutty fruitcake speed freaks who pay scant attention to rules of the road, even less to other drivers, even less to pedestrians and then….. cyclists?!….. what are they???   For the first few weeks I didn't see one cyclist and then occasionally I'd see one - usually of South Asian origin, no helmet, no hi-vi, no lights, and seemingly no fear!!…… but actually more likely simply no car.

Public transport here is almost non existent - no metro (they're building it) and a only a few buses but the car is king - well, the Toyota Landcruiser is king.  Mobile phone use while driving is a national pastime and driving decisions are made at the latest possible moment…… one doesn't plan ahead… if one wants to turn left cutting across other lanes of traffic, one will simply close ones eyes and do it.   

Wearing seat belts is the law here but again, not universally seen as necessary…. I've been driven by several locals who don't use their seatbelt.  When I protested, the response varied from… "its uncomfortable and doesn't look cool" to "If I have an accident, God will save me, not the seatbelt."  So lets just say its not a mature driving nation and throwing myself into this mix on two skinny wheels,  with only a layer of lycra and a honeycomb of polystyrene strapped to my skull for protection, seemed beyond bonkers and I'd never do it because I valued my life way too much.

So here I am now, officially bonkers, after having spent the last 6 months cycling to work a few times a week.  I brought my lovely Grey Legs back with me from the UK on my flight after the Christmas holidays.  And I have to say Im totally loving it, but they key has been to find a route to work which doesn't involve too much on-road riding!  And what a lovely route it is.  

My hotel is on the Corniche in Doha which is a promenade which encircles the waters of the Persian Gulf, from the Museum of Islamic Art at one end to the Sheraton Hotel at the other - approximately 5km end to end. 

My morning cycle takes me just over half way around the bay, past the fishermen who are there from before sunrise, the palm trees bending in the regular shamaal wind, Dhows waiting to take random visitors on a 10 minute spin round the bay and the ever present labourers who toil in the hottest of temperatures to keep Doha looking good - especially this particular stretch which is right opposite the Royal Palace.

Some days Im busy in thought as I cycle (not having to focus on duelling with taxis and buses as I did in London) and some days, I take in the view and have to pinch myself when I realise this is now my commute to work!!  Its definitely a change to the Stroud Green Road!!

 And then…. I have to cross an enormous junction of two six lane highways,   where my attention must resume to the road and my focus must be 110% if I want to survive and reach the other side intact!!    The golden rule with these junctions is not to take the sort of calculated risks I did in London, trying to beat the lights, skip across red ones when it was safe etc.  

Here, even crossing when the green man is lit, isn't a guarantee of safety, as drivers regularly jump red lights here.  No, this requires absolute concentration and complete caution!!  Once safely across, I resume my journey up Khalifa Street on the pathway beneath the trees to Al Jazeera.   I have to be a little careful here because Im cycling on block paving, which hasn't been perfectly laid and little bricks pop up unannounced at random intervals just to keep me and Grey Legs on our toes/tyres!!  Get it wrong and it could be a puncture or worse.  When I said Doha was flat, its all relative.  Khalifa street is uphill in the mornings and when there is a headwind (and its always a headwind), it can be a bit of a struggle, especially in 38 degrees and 60% humidity, which it was last week!!!

We pass the beautiful and grand Abdul Wahhab Mosque (the Qatar State Mosque) every day.  It covers an impressive 175,000 sq metres and has 28 domes over the central hall and 65 domes over the outer quadrangle.  It can accommodate 11,000 men in the central hall and 1200 women in the adjacent female prayer room. But the total congregation space can potentially take 30,000 people!  It was officially opened in December 2011 by the then Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. 

And during the winter, when the nights draw in, I still get a thrill seeing the Doha cityscape lit up in different colours every night!!  I often stop and sit, and take a moment to reflect and keep my eyes peeled for the Corniche police - lets just say its not officially sanctioned bicycle territory!! 

But Grey Legs and I don't just commute together - we've taken a few leisure trips too - such as Qatar Sports Day.  The one day each year where Qatar gets healthy - to the point where even shisha is banned for the day!!  It is a national bank holiday and the nation is encouraged to engage in a sporting endeavour of some kind.  

All along the Corniche and at other venues across Doha, people are running, cycling, stretching, bending, playing football, netball, handball, and even -would you believe in 30 degrees - even skiing.  Here we are queuing to ski down the smallest ski slope Ive ever seen - mind you by the time we got there, most of it had probably melted!!

And we go for coffee together in the Islamic Museum park, a favourite place to relax, read, unwind from the week's craziness and take in the city skyline and the boys on jet-skis who enjoy racing past and soaking unsuspecting onlookers with their spray!   And its one of the few places where bicycles are encouraged and in fact, they even have bicycle rentals here too.

But Grey Legs' proudest moment came when we spent the day with the Tour of Qatar on its final leg along the Corniche.  It was incredibly thrilling to be at such close proximity to the energy and speed of the world's cycling greats. And after the race had finished, we cycled around the course and even got applauded by a family who were picnicking beside the road.  Not sure if they were just excited to think there was another event, simply getting into the spirit of it all, or genuinely thought I was a poor straggler who they were willing along to the end!!  Either way, it was fabulous, just having our wheels on the same tarmac as the great Wiggo!!!  who didn't place anywhere in the end!

As Ramadan now approaches and the temperatures are soaring into the 40s daily and the humidity increasing into the 70%s and more, the time has come to give Grey legs a well earned rest from the commuting for a few weeks, but we'll be back, Inshallah.