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In Somalia, piracy and state breakdown

 
The Daily Star (Leb.)
November 22, 2008
Rami G. Khouri
 
You know we're in trouble when much public sentiment in the Arab world probably backs the Somali pirates who recently captured a Saudi Arabian supertanker carrying $100 million of crude oil. If there is a single incident that captures the strange dynamics that have defined our region for the past 50 years or so, this is it: Lawless brigands of a collapsed, poverty-stricken and often violent state grab the paramount symbol of the modern Arab world - an oil tanker heading for the West! - and the rest of the Arab world remains mostly silent and indifferent.
 
This week in Beirut and on a working visit to Jordan, I asked people for their views of the seizure of the Saudi tanker. I heard three striking and frightening responses: mostly shrugs of the shoulder, some perfunctory expressions of distaste for criminal piracy, and an occasional wicked sense of glee by a few stressed people whose daily lives were increasingly becoming a losing battle to make ends meet, and who experienced vicarious thrills in the daring defiance of the pirates.
 
Somali piracy has suddenly captured international attention, because global sea-borne assets are now threatened, though the suffering and death of Somalis remain strangely invisible to the outside world. The global response has been a colossal failure in understanding what all this really means. Most comments I have heard focus on the need for greater security cooperation, a sort of "surge-at-sea" strategy to defeat the pirates militarily. This is probably futile in the long run if it only focuses on defeating criminality without addressing the underlying causes of state collapse that gave birth to the piracy phenomenon in the first place.
 
The deeper symbolism and lessons in the Somali piracy phenomenon reflect the modern history of the two actors in this latest incident - Somalia and Saudi Arabia. They nicely capture three dominant trends that have defined the modern Arab world in the past 50 years or so.
 
First, that of wealthy oil-producing states and their Arab security-state allies that have spent trillions of dollars on state-building, without credibly achieving sustainable development, reliable security, or respect and influence around the world.
 
Second, the sad history of low-income Arab countries that were born distorted thanks to the European colonial enterprise, and then suffered decades of home-grown dictatorships and incompetent governance, leading to total state collapse, as in Somalia.
 
And third, the erratic performance of world powers in such cases, whether alternately supporting and attacking regimes in Somalia, willfully sending in foreign troops (including Ethiopian proxies most recently), or ignoring the consequences of such foreign intervention when the state collapses into chaos and criminality.
 
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991, when the former dictator Mohammad Siad Barre was ousted after 22 years in power, during which he alternated between Soviet and American support. Somali statehood since 1960 has been a dismal and failed affair, with 8 million Somalis now scattered among five different adjacent countries and territories - a typical post-colonial situation in this case reflecting the audacious handiwork of Italy and Great Britain.
 
Piracy, like terrorism, is an acquired habit. It may accompany a deeper malaise in broad swaths of public opinion among ordinary men and women who reject the criminal deeds, but share the resentments, anger and fear abounding in their societies. The most important thing about the Somali pirates these days is not the loss of a few million dollars in ransom money they have requested and sometimes secured (compared to trillions of dollars that have vaporized around global equity and real estate markets). The really frightening thing about Somali pirates is what they reveal about the disenchantment and despair in much of the Arab world.
 
These sentiments translate mostly into enormous popular disinterest about the fate of the hijacked ships, and occasional quiet satisfaction that somebody, somewhere in the Arab world is fighting back against a system of modern statehood, economic mismanagement and global politics that has been wickedly erratic in its performance. Once again - as in Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Algeria and other distressed and occasionally fractured lands - Somalia and its troubles offers a window through which we can see the deeper distortions plaguing the Arab world, and the consequent mass resentments that fuel its agitated citizens.
 
The Saudis will get back their tanker and its cargo of $100 million in crude oil, as they should. The other seized ships will also be released, some for ransoms paid. The piracy will stop one day, as it must, when everyone involved in this little drama - the Somalis themselves, the Arabs around them, the world's trading and military powers - act on the basis that human beings have as much right to security and the protection of the rule of law as ships carrying oil, tanks, cars and tennis shoes.
 
Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.
 
Copyright 2008, The Daily Star.
 
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