George Trumbull’s recent blog entry about Middle Eastern outposts in other parts of the world rightly mentioned Marseille and the Italian islet of Lampedusa, with its now closed migrant detention camp, as two “Middle Easternized” spaces of the European Mediterranean. I want to briefly revisit the two sites and suggest other possible ways of reading them.
In the current issue of Middle East Report, we write about the strategic logic of China’s increasing investment in teaching Middle Eastern languages, particularly Arabic, Persian and Turkish. A key goal of the push for Middle Eastern language competency is to help rebuild the Silk Road that China stood astride in centuries past.
The September 11, 2001 attacks marked the beginning of large-scale trade between the Middle East and mainland China in the modern era. New visa restrictions in the United States — until then the number-one trading partner of Arab countries — forced Arab merchants to find business destinations in various Chinese cities. Statistics attest to the intensification of Sino-Arab trade: In 2004, the volume was less than $36 billion but in 2011 it reached nearly $200 billion. The Chinese government’s goal is to boost trade to $300 billion in 2014.
In 1998, a shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Indonesia. It turned out to be the remains of an early ninth-century dhow from the Gulf that had been headed back from China with a cargo of over 70,000 items, primarily ceramics, produced in different Chinese regions. The goods varied in style and quality, and had clearly been custom-made for the different tastes of the major trading centers of the Gulf. Thousands of ceramic bowls and dishes had been neatly stacked into hundreds of large urns, which in turn had been arranged in several layers of rows along the bottom of the dhow.
Since their government has not, Shoshi Anbal and a posse of her fellow Tel Aviv housewives are preparing to engage in diplomacy with Syria. On May 18, they assembled along the Israeli-Syrian frontier to applaud what at the time was Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s latest iteration of his call for negotiations to end the 40-year standoff over the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967, and indeed the legal state of war prevailing between the two states since 1948. “Asad! Israel wants to talk,” the women chanted. And, less reverently, “Let’s visit Damascus—by car, not by tank.”
Jordan is the poster child for the Bush administration project of “transforming” the political order in the Middle East through free trade. If Jordan is any guide, however, economic liberalization does not lead inexorably to the diffusion of political power.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is in hot water with Washington and European capitals because of its apparent pursuit of a nuclear bomb. Dangling carrots of increased trade, the Europeans are trying to persuade Iran to renounce atomic ambitions. Skeptical of these methods but bogged down in Iraq, the Bush administration has grumbled on the sidelines.
The transatlantic rift over the war in Iraq, and now post-war reconstruction, builds on growing European disenchantment with muscular US unilateralism. French and German opposition to the war—echoing the sentiments of a majority of the European Union's member states—highlighted seemingly growing differences between European and American attachments to international laws and conventions, underscored by recent trade disputes and wrangling over US attempts to exempt its nationals from the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court. Differences between European capitals and Washington have been particularly acute as regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visits Washington this week at a time when US-Egyptian relations appear to be harmonious. Yet beneath the surface, relations may not be as cordial as they seem. Particularly discordant notes in the current US-Egyptian relationship concern free trade, regional economic integration and Egypt's human rights record. These issues will be high on the agenda during meetings between US and Egyptian officials this week.
Conventional definitions imagine world trade as taking places among nations — international trade, it is called. Convention also holds that everyone is best off when such trade is carried on as freely as possible. Neither the definition nor the polemic of free traders has changed much, except for a pseudo-scientific overlay of mathematics, since David Ricardo laid it out in 1817. But the world has changed some in the last 176 years.
Chips and satellites are part of that change, of course, but so is the spread of a social institution, the multinational corporation. Some figures from a 1992 World Bank report make this point well. After noting that multinationals had shifted “labor-intensive stages of production” to Third World states, the report continued: