Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cover up over death of stranded Indian National in Muscat Airport

You may have caught this story in the press, about an Indian housemaid who lost her passport in Qatar, and was sent back to Muscat, a la Tom Hanks in The Terminal.

Local blogger English Girl in Oman covered it here last week, pointing out too the condescension oft meted out to working class Indians here in Oman (and throughout the Gulf).

Only in her case it was 'Terminal'. She died (reported to be due to a stress induced cardiac arrest) after being trapped in the airport for 4 days when the embassy couldn't get her emergency travel documents.

Too accurate Movie title for poor Beebi Lumada, who died from stress after being trapped for 4 (or more) days in Muscat airport.

Muscat Airport is not somewhere I'd want to be stuck for 4 hours, and that's in the so-called Business Class 'lounge'.

At least the Gulf News dug a little deeper here

MUSCAT (AFP) – An Indian woman died after losing her passport and becoming stranded for about four days at Muscat airport, an Indian embassy official in the Omani capital said on Sunday.

The woman, a housemaid identified as Beebi Lumada, "died of some illness" when she was being taken to hospital, the official said on condition of anonymity, adding that "she was suffering from bouts of hysteria."

She had been trying to fly home to Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the southern Indian state of Kerala, on Qatar Airways via Doha where officials turned her back to Muscat on Monday after she lost her passport.
She was forced to stay in Muscat airport's transit area where she was provided with food, the official said, adding the embassy had been in contact with her but "couldn't get any documents."

"On Friday, her health deteriorated, so she was sent to the Ibn Sina Hospital," but she died en route there in an ambulance, the official said without elaborating on the possible cause of death.
The woman's body was being sent back to India.

Of course, the core story was as told by "an Indian embassy official". They got the report out fast because people notice when a woman dies simply due to being trapped in an airport for 4 or 5 days. Amnesty International were calling for a full Omani investigation into the matter.

His Excellency, Mr Anil Wadhwa (left, wearing suit), Indian Ambassador to Oman, very busy cutting a ribbon opening the new Aster Hospital in Sohar, June 2010 (Photo AMEInfo]. Aster Hospital's slogan is 'Big on Care'. Pity HE The Ambassador didn't pick up a greater degree of care for the fate of his own citizen's while he was at it...

Muscat Confidential is reliably informed that many of our local journalists have tried to write about the story (often being Indian themselves) and get some details on this total incompetence 'procedural delay', but the stories are being actively suppressed by pressure from the Indian Embassy on the (again, mainly Indian) editors at our esteemed Fourth Estate.

After all, she was just some poor Indian housemaid, so why should the Embassy get in trouble? This is why the reports from the embassy, including quotes from ace Ambassador Anil Wadhwa, repeatedly stress that Lumada, "suffered from seizures and hysteria". Yeah, right.

Afterall, she'd only been trying to leave Oman, and was left in no-mans land with no contact from the poor helpless Embassy, 'as there was no access for embassy staff to the stranded passenger at the airport.' Oh, and it was, like, a weekend, and the Embassy was too busy attending parties. [note to Ambassador Wadhwa, Hysteria has not been an official psychiatric condition for the past 30 years.]

According to The Indian Express, even the Indian External Affairs Minister can smell a rat, so maybe someone at the Indian Embassy will get some just desserts for such incompetence, as they really did send someone out to investigate.

New Delhi, 12 Oct
The External Affairs Ministry is sending a senior official to Muscat to investigate the case of a woman, who died after being stranded at the airport there for five days after she lost her passport.

"We are sending a senior official of the Ministry to Muscat to conduct an enquiry and report back to me," External Affairs Minister S M Krishna told reporters here.

This move comes in the backdrop of reports that embassy officials did not help 40-year-old Keralite Beebi Lumada, a housemaid who was travelling from Muscat to Chennai via Doha by a Qatar Airways flight last week, who lost her passport while in transit at the Doha airport.

There is also a very good follow-up on the story by Sunil K. Vaidya in the Gulf News, quoting the Omani Sponsor as saying he had had the housemaid examined before she left at a Government Hospital who found she had "no health issues"; to news of such official good health the outstanding Indian Ambassador reportedly had no comment, despite it being in direct contradiction to his very own statements made earlier.

Yes, it seems no-one really helped her. As a poor Indian in the Gulf, that's perhaps not surprising, unfortunately.

But does the Embassy's inaction mean they have blood on their hands? Their rapid action to use behind the scenes influence to spike the stories many Oman-based journalists have written suggests the Embassy, at least, don't want anyone asking the obvious questions.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Question of Succession

Following the recent 40 year celebration of the amazing Omani Renaissance under the wise rule of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, there were a few nice articles (here (FT) and here (MEED), for example) in the external media about the issue of Oman's succession.

His Majesty is still relatively healthy, having recovered from a long spell of illness a couple of years ago (most likely as a complication of his diabetes). But he is now in his 70s, and unfortunately will not be with us forever. Hence the question of who will succeed him as ruler of Oman. This is not something that is considered a topic for the Omani media.

According to Article 5 of Oman’s basic law, the successor must be a male descendant of Turki bin Said, Sultan from 1871-88.

HH Sayyid Turki bin Said. He successfully deposed the pretender Immam Al Qais in 1870 to establish the Al Said line of rulers of Oman.

This requirement has, by now, enabled a pretty broad field of potential rulers. So in 1996, the heirless Sultan Qaboos updated the constitution stating the royal Al Busaidy family should unanimously choose a successor within 48 hrs. If they don't, the Army assumes command and opens a safe containing a letter with his Majesty's nominated 2 potential successors. Apparently there are two such safes, one in Muscat and the other in Salalah (just to be sure no switcheroos take place). This was a big improvement on the previous set-up, where by default the army would naturally have taken control immediately.

"When I die, my family will meet. If they cannot agree on a candidate, the Defense Council will decide, based on a name or names submitted by the previous sultan. I have already written down two names in descending order, and put them in sealed envelopes in two different regions."
from Judith Miller, "Creating Modern Oman: An Interview with Sultan Qabus," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 76, No. 3 (May/June 1997), p. 17. [taken from secondary sources]

As the Sultan has no brothers (just 3 sisters) the inside track follows the principal of primogeniture. The accepted front runners for the succession are therefore the sons of Qaboos' uncle Prince Tariq bin Taimur Al-Said (and ex-Prime Minister of Oman, who died in 1980). Namely Asa’ad, 56, Shihab, 55, and Haitham, 54.

So who are these potential candidates? There is not a lot of info available.

HH Sayyid Asa'ad bin Tariq Al Said (on right). Asa’ad is the Sultan’s personal representative. And also perhaps not a big fan of the gym.

HH Sayyid Shihab bin Tariq Al Said (second from left), a personal adviser to HM, and who was head of the Oman Royal Navy until 2004. The best looking of the 3, and a military man too. The favourite, IMHO.

HH Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq Al Said (on right), currently Minister of Heritage and Culture. He is also the 50% owner of Cyclone LLC, the company infamously responsible for the failed Blue City development. This perhaps questions his judgement and business skills.

The 'dark horse' in the potential succession would be His Majesty's current 'number 1' HH Sayyid Fahd Bin Mahmood al-Said, 66, Deputy Prime Minister and the one you always see in the papers filling in for HM at events too numerous to mention.

HH Sayyid Fahd Bin Mahmood al-Said, Deputy Prime Minister of Oman.

Given his clear involvement in the day to day running of the Government, and his age, I would imagine HH Fahd would be better as someone HM could rely on being the new 'number 1' to whoever succeeds as Sultan. But he is also technically qualified to become Sultan too.

Fahd is certainly the only potential familial successor to have any real experience of senior governmental administration and diplomacy, as HM has retained most significant Government positions for himself, ie HM is also Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Defense minister, Finance minister, and Chairman of the Central Bank.

A 2004 article by Mark Katz in the Middle East Review of International Affairs summarises many of the issues perceived by external intellectuals about the question of succession.

I personally hope HM consciously retreats from the increasing isolation he seems to have experienced from 'ordinary Omanis', a trend exacerbated by his illness and encouraged by his coterie of advisors, senior Ministers and the powerful oligarchs. The brilliant and daring young Turks who helped him come to power, and fought alongside him on the battlefields on Dhofar are now old, privileged and entrenched. He would do well to reconnect with their modern equivalents, in the Universities and, dare I say it, online.

In addition, he should continue, and accelerate, to build the structures he has begun that can potentially move Oman towards a more stable Constitutional Monarchy from its current status of Absolute Monarchy; whereby accountability for initiating and finalising legislation is vested in a significantly more empowered and elected Majlis, backed up by a truly professional civil service. Unfortunately the powerful people around HM, those who would have to execute such a plan, are best served by the continuation of the present system of concentration of power, while they enrich themselves and their heirs within the current structure. This means any progress in this regard is more likely to stall than accelerate. The sclerotic press establishment maintain the status quo at every opportunity.

So, a belated happy 40 yr Anniversary Oman. The past 4 decades have seen the country arise spectacularly from a long poverty of material and intellectual privation. HM has laid for Oman the firmest of foundations using the revenue from oil. Stable, civilised, and tolerant. Plus a frankly brilliant foreign policy which has created the GCC, and steered for Oman a path between the imperial powers of the UK and USA vs Iran and Saudi. HM is one smart diplomat and soldier.

But, as the oil and gas revenue ceases to keep up with population growth, and the old allies of America and the UK suffer from their own poverty and hence reduce their strategic largesses, Oman needs to look to how this nation can be sustained over the next 4 decades.

I would also direct interested readers to an excellent thesis submitted in May 2010 analysing "OMAN’S FOREIGN POLICY BETWEEN 1970-2008" by EMİN AKSEKİ of the north Cypriot MIDDLE EAST TECHNICAL UNIVERSITY.

Its not a topic that gets a lot of local or global academic attention, and young Emin has done a pretty darned good job.