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Middle East and North Africa (MENA): News from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar

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  • Zafar Khan
    SAUDI ARABIA Saudi Arabia stubs out smoking in public places Ban to be implemented from Monday in the kingdom, which is the world s fourth largest importer of
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 3, 2012

      Saudi Arabia stubs out smoking in public places
      Ban to be implemented from Monday in the kingdom, which is the world's fourth largest importer of tobacco
      Associated Press in Riyadh
      guardian.co.uk, Monday 30 July 2012 11.53 BST


      Saudi Arabia has banned smoking in government offices and most public places, including restaurants, coffee shops, supermarkets and shopping centres.

      The ban includes smoking of water-pipes (or shishas), and prohibits selling tobacco to those under the age of 18.

      The official SPA news agency reports that the interior minister, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, has ordered that a royal ban on smoking be implemented from Monday, saying Islam urges the preservation of public health.

      The ban is a significant step up in the kingdom's campaign to curb smoking. It banned smoking in its airports last year.

      Saudi statistics say the country is the world's fourth largest importer of tobacco and that 6 million Saudis spend about 30m riyals (about £5m) a day on cigarettes.

      Saudi hits out at Russia over rights comments
      Russian rights envoy expresses "great concern" about the situation in east Saudi, comments the kingdom calls "hostile".
      Last Modified: 15 Jul 2012 12:34


      Saudi protest crackdown leaves two dead
      Police in Qatif use live bullets to disperse protesters after arrest and shooting of prominent Shia cleric and activist.
      Last Modified: 09 Jul 2012 10:15



      Robert Fisk: Beirut's banks – and a money trail from Syria to Iran…
      The Central Bank of Lebanon is accused of taking deposits from terrorists and criminals


      Syria strikes again. After weeks of shelling across the Lebanese border, the inevitable has happened. An anti-Iranian activist group, along with a host of "informed sources" in a Wall Street Journal report, is claiming that Beirut's wealthy banks have become a sovereign money-laundering jurisdiction for "massive inflows of illicit deposits … from Hezbollah's terror and criminal activities, and the illicit symbiotic relationships among Iran, Syria and Hezbollah".

      At least, that's what the United Against Nuclear Iran group says. And, of course, everyone says that the Central Bank of Lebanon is involved. Poor old Lebanese banks. Or rather, rich old Lebanese banks. For every time there is a new hate wave against the hateful Islamic Republic, or a new Israeli-Hezbollah dust-up, New York fumes with allegations that Lebanon's bankers are deep in the financial mud with the various Hitlers of the Middle East.

      And of course, Riad Salameh, the Lebanese central bank governor has trotted out to deny all the accusations. "Everything that has been said about the traffic of money from Syria to Lebanese banks is untrue," he said, adding that the number of Syrian deposits in Lebanese banks had gone down.

      Mr Salameh, of course, is a fairly angry chap. This, after all, is the man who steered legislation through the Beirut cabinet in the mid-2000s to ban any Lebanese bank from dealing in sub-prime loans and derivatives. Since he knew how dodgy they were – he himself worked on Wall Street – he largely prevented the Lebanese banking system from being caught in the world's economic collapse. Unlike, of course, the New York banks, whose own corrupt practices managed to bankrupt thousands.

      More than a year ago, I lunched with a Beirut financial adviser and asked when he thought the WSJ would try to bite the Lebanese banking system for money laundering and helping the Syrian regime. "I think we're past all that now, Robert," he said. "We've reached a new level of financial maturity with the Americans." Sure.

      America's suspicions make sense only if you believe in the conspiracy theory, but the anti-Iranian group's argument plods along like a novel. Since Lebanon has "a great risk of sovereign default" (untrue) because of "its high debt to GDP ratio" (factually correct), there must be "a fraudulent hidden scheme driven by Hezbollah and its late (sic) sponsors, Iran and Syria, to support this economic house of cards". Therefore Lebanese financial institutions must be forbidden from participating in the US financial system.

      Given the mass illegality within the US system, Lebanese bankers would be well advised to ban themselves from it. But now that the US Treasury is being told to designate Lebanon's financial system as a "money-laundering concern", is it true?

      Well, the Treasury blacklisted the Lebanese Canadian bank last year over money-laundering charges and "connections to a terrorist group". But, long before the Arab revolutions, it was said that up to three-quarters of all Syria's privately-held dollar liquidity rested in Lebanese accounts. After all, who would open an account in the Central Bank of Syria?

      I do occasionally pick up a whiff of something irregular – a system, for example, of transferring money from Lebanese-owned Syrian private banks to Beirut – but on nothing like the scale of US claims.

      Of the world's top 1,000 banks, based on their probity and financial stability, eight Lebanese banks are included. That's according to The Banker magazine. Which I suppose the lads and lasses don't read.

      Robert Fisk: The rebel sheikh defying Hezbollah to take aim at Assad
      The Long View


      Yes, the former president of Syria and father of the president regime incumbent is roasting away there, and has been since he died of a heart attack while chatting on the phone to the Lebanese president in 2000.

      I have this on the authority of Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, the Sidon Salafist who has blocked the road between Sidon and Beirut and who promises me that his huge beard –a great field of graying hair that hangs proudly down his chest – took 20 years to grow. Being a sceptic about religion as well as biology, I’m not sure I accept either the Assad-in-hell or the beard claims.

      But Assir, a Sunni Muslim who is demanding that Syria’s militia ally Hezballah should hand over all its weapons to the Lebanese state is fast becoming a phenomenon in Lebanon, putting the heebejeebies into the pro-Hezballah government, the Hezballah and a lot of other factions in a country which still prays to keep out of the Syrian conflict. This weekend, another five Lebanese, at least three of them children, were reportedly killed by Syrian shellfire in the north of the country. In Sheikh Assir’s eyes, it’s another stake in the heart of Hafez el-Assad’s son.

      The odd thing is that when you meet him, Sheikh al-Assir is so forthcoming in all he tells you about himself that it’s impossible not to have a sneaking respect for the guy. Ask him if he’s married, and his sloping eyes twinkle merrily away behind his frameless spectacles. “I have two wives and three children,” he says. And an older man – the Sheikh is 44 – sits down on a plastic seat beside me, beaming away happily.

      “My father used to be a singer and sang love songs and sang at weddings but now he is a muezzin and calls Muslims to prayer at our mosque.”

      Tch, tch, I say; the calls to prayer are no longer chanted from minarets by real priests; across the Muslim world they have adopted the boring practice of playing a CD of prayer calls over amplified loudspeakers. “No,” says Mohamed al-Hillal Al-Assir al-Hussain defiantly, “I actually climb the minaret and call for prayers myself from the top.” Independent readers sceptical of this may turn up at the Mazjid Bilal bin Rabah mosque in the Sidon suburb of Abra five times a day to check it out. But you see what I mean; interesting family. Money comes from his own family – “we built the mosque ourselves”.

      Hezballah suspects, of course, that Qatar and Saudi Arabia, those great Sunni fortresses currently bestowing cash and guns to the rebels of Syria, are behind the sudden appearance of Sheikh Assir. Why does he preach against Syria in the Friday prayers in Tripoli? Why has he blocked the main coastal road north of Sidon, claiming he will not leave until the army hoovers up Hezballah’s weapons – from pistols to rockets – and thus cutting south-west Lebanon off from the capital? There are no guns (to be seen, of course) at the sheikh’s sit-in, and just a truck turned across the road to block it and a lot of black-chadored ladies hovering around. And a lot of enraged Sidon (Sunni) shopkeepers complaining that they can no longer take their famous patisseries up to Beirut for sale. No wonder even the Sunni opposition in parliament is against the sheikh’s sit-in.

      Sheikh al-Assir says that the Hezballah leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, whom he has never met, is making a terrible mistake by leading “political Shiism” away from the people of Lebanon. “I grew up in the civil war as a young child and we all used to be happy and play and go to school. But then we had to live in the basement. We were never secure in our homes, we were losing our childhood friends who were Christian and Shia. Today, the political Shia are making the same mistake which ruined us before. And because of this, I am against all arms – so my grandchildren do not grow up with a childhood like mine.”

      But it is Syria which claws at the Sheikh’s anger. “Bashar will fall and he is one of the most serious problems in the region. And Iran will fall….Syria is a catastrophe. Assad is now in hell for killing 20,000 people in Hama in 1982. We will ask the Syrian people that they have a trial of the al-Assad family after the fall of the regime. Bashar will be killed, hopefully. He will not leave Syria. The people of Syria will not accept all these innocent victims of the regime. Those of the regime who die and go to hell – they go straight to hell the moment their soul leaves their body. If I die and I don’t go to paradise, then I have lost everything. If I go to paradise, then it is with the blessing of God.”

      Strong stuff. But not exactly messianic. The Sheikh has nothing against the West although he has visited Abu Dhabi, Yemen, India, Ukraine and Pakistan, the latter making an impact on him – the very poor and the very rich being a microcosm of the world. “I come to my religion with serious convictions,” he adds. I’ll say.


      Do Jordanians want reform or revolution?
      The tiny, impoverished country is led by an unelected absolute monarch and is plagued by corruption and ethnic tensions.
      Last Modified: 27 Jul 2012 15:19
      Mehdi Hasan


      It has a population of less than seven million, few natural resources of its own, and tends to rely on aid from its rich neighbours and its friends in the West in order to survive.

      But a combination of geography and history has resulted in the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan playing a critical role in the politics of the Middle East and, especially, the Israel-Palestine conflict.

      The global financial crisis, however, has hit the country hard and food prices have skyrocketed. Economic growth has halved and unemployment stands, officially, at 12 per cent and, unofficially, at between 25 and 30 per cent.

      I travelled to Jordan to try to find out what the future holds for a country led by an unelected and absolute monarch, plagued by corruption and economic stagnation, and divided between ethnic Jordanians - the "East Bankers" - and the marginalised Palestinians - the "West Bankers" - who now make up a majority of the population.

      But it isn't just the Palestinians who are disgruntled - the opposition to the regime ranges from the "squeezed" middle classes, to former army generals, to the East Bank tribal leaders that the ruling royal family has traditionally relied on to staff the civil and intelligence services, to the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). The latter, the biggest and best-organised political group in Jordan, has yet to call for the royal family to go but continues to boycott elections and the country's parliament. The IAF has been invigorated by the Brotherhood's recent victory in the Egyptian presidential election and has since been wooed by a panicked regime.

      The truth is that Jordan's royal rulers have tended to use the country's politicians and bureaucrats to deflect attention from their own failings; the four Hashemite kings have changed prime ministers almost 70 times since the establishment of modern Jordan in 1921 and the current king, Abdullah, has appointed 10 different prime ministers since coming to power in 1999 - three of them in the past 12 months alone. As I asked Mohammed Halaikah, a former deputy prime minister under Abdullah: Is there something wrong with every single Jordanian premier or perhaps something wrong with the king himself?

      I was surprised, in fact, to find criticism of King Abdullah, and his wife, the glamorous Queen Rania, commonplace in Amman, the country's capital - despite the fact that insulting the king is punishable by three years in prison. Abdullah, however, lacks the charisma and charm of his late father, Hussein; many Jordanians may continue to harbour a nationalist and Islamic attachment to their Hashemite ruling family but plenty of others, for example, openly mock the Western-educated monarch's poor command of Arabic. Rania, who is of Palestinian descent, is particularly unpopular with the East Bankers and her lavish lifestyle and extravagant spending has prompted ominous comparisons with Marie Antoinette.

      Lest we forget, however, tiny, impoverished Jordan is a key strategic ally of the US and one of only two Arab nations (the other being Egypt) to have signed a peace treaty with the state of Israel. If the Arab Spring were to spread to the Hashemite kingdom and the ruling family fell, after almost a century in power, it would have a massive, almost unquantifiable impact on the wider region and on the Muslim world as a whole.

      The key question is: Do Jordanians want reform or revolution?

      Islamists boycott election in Jordan
      SATURDAY 14 JULY 2012


      The powerful Muslim Brotherhood has said it will boycott the forthcoming parliamentary elections in protest at the kingdom's election laws, saying that recent reforms fall short of its demands.

      A boycott by the Brotherhood's political party, the Islamic Action Front, would deal a blow to King Abdullah II, who has made his reforms campaign the centrepiece of efforts to stave off Arab Spring-style protests.

      The elections, expected by the end of the year although no date has been set, are critical to the king's campaign. He has changed 42 articles, or one-third of Jordan's 60-year-old constitution, giving parliament a say in appointing the cabinet – a task which used to be his sole prerogative.

      "The government left us no choice but to boycott the elections because it did not show any seriousness toward real reforms," a Brotherhood spokesman, Jamil Abu-Bakr, said.

      Mr Abu-Bakr said the Brotherhood – the largest opposition group – may reverse its decision if the government acted promptly on its demands. "We will leave that discussion until a time when the government undertakes serious and real efforts toward reforms," he said.



      Is the media ignoring Sudan's uprising?
      As Sudan is witnessing its own version of the Arab Spring, we ask if the media has failed to keep up with the protests.
      Listening Post Last Modified: 17 Jul 2012 07:05


      It could have been another chapter in the Arab Spring. Protests have exploded on to the streets of the Sudanese capital Khartoum against the government of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's president.

      But compared to some of the other uprisings in the region, this one has been all but ignored. Security forces have banned newspapers, citizen journalists have been arrested and activists have had to rely on social media to get information.

      In this week's News Divide, we look at why the media has failed to keep up with another uprising that quickly gathering speed.


      Kuwaitis' oil wealth causes rise in diabetes


      Dhari al-Fadli, a patient being treated at a diabetes clinic in Kuwait, is a victim of the dark side of his country's economic boom. After his weight went over 19 stone, Fadli had to inject himself with insulin before every meal. He has now lost enough weight to stop the injections, but still has to take diabetic medication.

      "We have a saying here that if you don't have diabetes, you're not a Kuwaiti," said Fadli, a 49-year-old father of five. In fact, more than one in five Kuwaitis suffer from the disease. Oil wealth has given Kuwait and nearby countries in the Gulf some of the highest per capita incomes in the world. But it has also created lifestyles – over-eating, high-sugar diets, cushy jobs and heavy reliance on cars – that are leading to an explosion of diabetes in the region, experts say.

      Five of the 10 countries where diabetes is most prevalent are located in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, according to the International Diabetes Federation (IDF). Kuwait is third, Qatar sixth, Saudi Arabia seventh, Bahrain eighth and the UAE 10th. The rest of the top 10 are Pacific island nations with much smaller populations and Lebanon, which is fifth. A staggering 21.1 per cent of people in Kuwait suffer from diabetes, while prevalence rates are around 20 per cent in other GCC countries, IDF figures show. In the US, the rate is 9.6 per cent; worldwide, it is 8.5.

      Genetic factors apparently contribute to the Gulf's high incidence of diabetes. But expatriates living in the Gulf have a higher incidence of diabetes than they do in their home countries. This suggests lifestyles are a major reason for this regional problem.


      Iraq attacks leave scores dead
      Wave of explosions and shootings across country kill more than 100 on worst day since withdrawal of US troops
      Associated Press in Baghdad
      guardian.co.uk, Monday 23 July 2012 16.09 BST


      A string of bombings and shootings have killed at least 106 people and injured nearly 200 across Iraq, officials said, in the nation's deadliest day in more than two years.

      The co-ordinated attacks in 15 cities on Monday come days after the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq warned in a statement that the group was reorganising in areas from which it retreated before US troops left the country last December.

      The blasts all took place within a few hours of each other. They struck mostly at security forces and government officials – two of al-Qaida's favourite targets in Iraq.

      "It was a thunderous explosion," said Mohammed Munim, 35, who was working at an interior ministry office that issues government ID cards to residents in Baghdad's Shia-dominated Sadr City neighbourhood when a car exploded outside. Sixteen people were killed in the single attack.

      "The only thing I remember was the smoke and fire, which was everywhere," said Munim from his hospital bedl. He was hit by shrapnel in his neck and back.

      The worst attack happened in the town of Taji, about 12 miles (20km) north of the capital where a double bombing killed at least 41 people. The blasts were timed to hit as police rushed to help victims from a series of five explosions minutes earlier.

      And in a brazen attack on Iraq's military, three carloads of gunmen pulled up at an army base near the north-eastern town of town of Udaim and started firing at forces. Thirteen soldiers were killed, and the gunmen escaped before they could be caught, two senior police officials said.

      The overall toll made Monday the deadliest day in Iraq since US troops left. The previous deadliest day was 5 January, when a wave of bombings targeting Shias killed 78 people in Baghdad and outside the southern city of Nasiriyah.

      Last weekend, the leader of al-Qaida's affiliate in Iraq warned that the militant network was returning to strongholds lost during the Americans' tenure.

      "The majority of the Sunnis in Iraq support al-Qaida and are waiting for its return," Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the Islamic State of Iraq since 2010, said in the statement, which was posted on a militant website.

      Spate of deadly attacks across Iraq
      At least 107 people killed after series of explosions and gun attacks in various cities, including capital Baghdad.
      Last Modified: 24 Jul 2012 00:05



      Iraq's blind eye to Syrian refugees' plight
      Jane Arraf
      Jane Arraf is a journalist based in Baghdad.


      At Iraq's Rabia border crossing with Syria, a giant billboard of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad waves jauntily to arriving passengers. It's a contrast to the grim expressions on those coming from Syria and going back in.

      This crossing in Ninevah, a majority Sunni province, borders Syria's Kurdish region, which until recently has been immune from much of the violence. Syria, eager to keep up the pretence that all is well, doesn't allow potential refugees to cross the border. Most of them are smuggled across at night knowing they will be arrested and delivered to a refugee camp in Kurdish territory.

      Army and border commanders say security has improved dramatically from a few years ago when this part of the country was an al-Qaeda stronghold. The Iraqi government would like to keep it that way.

      Hundreds of kilometres away in Western al-Anbar, the Iraqi government closed one of its three main border crossings after Syrian opposition fighters seized control from Syrian security forces. Not content with locking the gates, Iraqi soldiers sealed the border at al-Qaim with concrete blast barriers. The government deployed the 7th Army Division from the vast al-Assad desert base to reinforce the border, along with two Baghdad Army brigades and helicopters.

      The Iraqi government has been in a delicate position with its powerful Syrian neighbour – working to retain diplomatic relations and refusing to join the call for sanctions or armed intervention. The fighting though – and attacks on some of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who fled there during their own civil war - has made that increasingly difficult.

      While the UNHCR – the main refugee agency - called on the Iraqi government to reopen the border to Syrian refugees, the government spokesman indicated Friday that it wouldn't.

      "We are sorry for not receiving Syrian refugees. We are not like Jordan and Turkey - their border regions can provide services. We had hoped to help our Syrian refugee brothers," Ali Dabbagh told state-run Iraqiya TV. He said Iraqi security concerns and the location of the borders in the remote desert prevented them from helping.

      Instead, Iraq has focused on evacuating some of the estimated 300,000 Iraqis living in Syria – itself an admission that security in Syria had become untenable.

      Government planes have flown out almost 1,000 refugees from Damascus. Thousands of others have struggled to find their way on buses out of the country – some running a gauntlet of shootings and shelling along the way.

      On one bus, so crowded that desperate passengers were standing in the aisles, Sana Jabar explained why she had left her home in the Sayida Zaineb neighbourhood in Damscus – overrun by armed gangs.

      "They came and told us 'you Iraqis must evacuate your houses – your government is asking for you', so we were forced to leave."

      Seven years ago she left Sadr City in Baghdad after her husband was wounded in a bomb attack. Displaced for the second time, she was hoping she could find a home again in an Iraq still struggling with its own fragile security.


      Obesity: A big problem for fast growing Qatar
      With most of the nation overweight, health experts say changing the economy is easier than changing the people.
      Connor Bell Last Modified: 25 Jul 2012 15:22


      Doha, Qatar - As the holy month of Ramadan begins, this small country observes a total ban on eating or drinking (including water) in public during daylight hours. Many in this desert nation - where temperatures regularly exceed 47°C (117°F) - struggle to keep their fast. It is a time of quiet reflection, for charitable giving, and, once the sun sets, the sharing of the communal iftar feast - where's the day's hunger and thirst are sated by often extraordinarily lavish meals.

      Indeed, in Qatar, the breaking-of-fast feasting, and the suhoor - the pre-dawn meal in preparation of the fast - has reached extravagant proportions, with average food intake reportedly doubling during the holy month, leading to some 128 people being hospitalised due to stomach upsets on the first day of Ramadan alone.

      Some 73 per cent of Qatari men and 70 per cent of Qatari woman are overweight, according to the World Health Organisation's latest statistics,

      Even given drastic changes in both diet and general lifestyle, it's hard to grasp the speed at which Qatar has piled on the pounds. As of 2003, 45 per cent of Qatari women were obese, then second only in the Arab world to Egypt, with 46 per cent. Qatar also has the sixth highest rate of obesity among boys in the Middle East and North Africa. In a 2006 study of children between the ages of 12 and 17, almost 29 per cent of boys and girls were overweight, with eight per cent hitting the obesity mark.

      Bulging with fast food outlets and home delivery services, capital city Doha is devoid of pedestrian walkways, and those in power have seen the effects of the spreading sedentary lifestyle.

      Like those in many other small, resource-rich Arab nations, Qataris have slid from a physically demanding life in the desert to torpidly inhabiting rich cities in little more than a generation. To combat the ill-effects of such changes, the country of 1.8 million (300,000 of which are Qatari citizens) has also seen a wave of initiatives, strategies, reports and overarching proposals issued by various government councils, all stating their enthusiasm towards building a healthier citizenry.

      US intervention

      During the latest in a series of talks set up as public health meet-and-greets, Ellen Wartella, a professor of psychology, human development and social policy at Northwestern University, suggested a joint US and Qatari effort to combat the country's obesity.

      "Given the US experience and the fact that Qatar is very concerned about the environmental factors [contributing to obesity], I am proposing that some experts from both countries come together to establish a research agenda," she said.

      "We need to collaborate and design some interventions."

      At the symposium, put on by the Sidra Medical and Research Centre in Doha, Wartella advocated the the development of various "front-of-package" nutrition advice systems, such as those already in use in Europe and North America, wherein products are labeled according to their nutritional value.

      She noted that attention to food information and marketing is not generally thought of as a factor in child obesity in Qatar. "I hope it can be pegged higher on the [list of] public health issues," she said. But this top-down approach is not the only suggestion on the menu of healthy choices.

      A family approach

      In addition to the strict interventionist solutions that dominate the discussion here, Wartella also put forward a more family-oriented approach to combating obesity, explaining that another, albeit less discussed, angle of attack "is to launch a public service campaign directed at new mothers to teach them about good nutrition standards for their children".

      This method would take a far more holistic approach, using government marketing and public service campaigns to target obesity where it begins - with the child's desire to eat, and the parents' desire to feed them - seeking to establish a more European-style of nutrition, and a culture of healthy living.

      Yet Wartella was quick to note that past experience in the US reveals "a personal approach is not adequate to deal with the seriousness and scope of the obesity crisis", and urges a nuanced angle, adding "there needs to be intervention at multiple levels".

      While a focus on families is undoubtedly valuable - traditional Qatari diets can be high in fats and protein, and parents around the world tend to underestimate the weight of their child, or even view obesity as a sign of health - health experts here are sceptical of an approach that directly targets the family.

      Weighty issues

      "It's not just a personal problem, it's really a community and social problem" said Dr Ahmed Mohammed Saeed El-Awwa. In his experience as acting head of the Pediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes Unit at the University of Alexandria Children's Hospital, he has researched diabetic children extensively, and understands how to raise awareness of diabetes and other illnesses which are often dietary-related.

      "We are importing most of the food in Qatar, and importing as well the culture and environmental factors from other areas into our area" he said at the Sidra symposium, echoing ties Wartella made between obesity causes in the US and Qatar.

      El-Awwa acknowledged that the cornerstone of health management was illness prevention, saying obesity prevention should be a "national project".

      "A lot of behaviour change should be there from the start."

      Sheikh Mohammed Hamad J Al Thani is the director of public health at the Supreme Council of Health in Qatar. He said that the need to change behaviour to make a better life for people was paramount for a healthy country. "We know it's not very easy, but it's doable," he said. But "changing the economy is easier than changing the behaviour of people", he added.

      "Sometimes, in changing [their ways], people feel they are not loyal to their grandfathers," he said. He continues to favour initiatives centred on infrastructure, such as the nutrition labels suggested by Wartella.

      While there is still currently little in the way of concrete steps toward a solution, both el-Awwa and al-Thani spoke highly of proposals brought up in some parts of the US, such as banning certain soft drinks and a gradual phasing out of trans fats from public consumption.

      Their sentiments reflect the 2010 PhD thesis [PDF] of University of Birmingham scholar Dr Amal Essa Ahmad Thani al-Muraikhi, who had conducted surveys throughout Qatar, asking participants about education, perception of weight problems and family history.

      The study noted that those questioned emphasised the school environment, quoting one as saying "children learn from school more than they learn from their mothers". The author concluded that, while "any intervention is likely to involve schools ... a family or community component should also be considered".

      Looking for action

      In 2010, the Supreme Councils of Education and Health launched the School Health Initiative. The project involved holding workshops for 11 schools in an attempt to improve, through education, "the health of students, school personnel, families and other members of the community through schools". No other school initiatives have been publicly announced since, and so far no results from this initiative have been published.

      The National Health Strategy, 2011-2016, spearheaded by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, contains the most exhaustive outline of a national health initiative available. In a section outlining a series of "quick wins", the report describes a need to "ensure that all menus, especially in fast food restaurants, mention the number of calories in listed items". Along with a call for education on the benefits of breastfeeding in the same section, this is the only stated initiative in this or any other recent report that targets children.

      The five-year report does not involve schools in any of the initiatives, and acknowledges that "Qatar does not have comprehensive and accurate data on healthcare". While there is clearly no lack of awareness of a national obesity problem among government and medical professionals, it remains unknown whether this understanding, and the inevitable diet changes that accompany it, has filtered through to the general population.

      According to the CIA World Factbook, Qatar boasted a 19 per cent growth rate in 2010, the largest in the world. In the same year, industrial production grew by 27 per cent, another world best. The country also accrued $23.3bn of imports, roughly one sixth of the country's total purchasing power for that year. Since 1995, Qatar's per capita GDP has more than doubled every five years and average per capita income now exceeds $100,000 a year.

      In the past two generations, the Arab world has undergone incredible economic and demographic shifts. The constant push for new reserves of energy has pushed this tiny finger in the gulf coast to new heights of extravagance, both in economic gains and feats of engineering. Much like its eastern neighbour, Dubai, which recently constructed the largest building in the world, large sections of Doha have been raised from the sea. Indeed, the majority of the skyscrapers that punctuate the city's horizon were built in the past 15 years, requiring massive pumps to push water out from under foundations.

      It's clear that the country's leadership has few qualms about restructuring the fundamental makeup of the nation. For this government, health could just be yet another metric to tackle.
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