Obama, Erdogan Seek Common Ground on Middle East

By Matt Spetalnick and Laura MacInnis


U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan shake hands in New York September 20, 2011. World leaders have gathered in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.  

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

NEW YORK (Reuters) – President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan sought common ground on counterterrorism and Middle East policy on Tuesday even as Washington pressed Ankara to ease tensions with close U.S. ally Israel.

Their talks on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly came as a showdown loomed this week over Palestinian statehood at the world body, another source of rising tensions in a region in political upheaval.

Washington has watched with concern as NATO ally Turkey’s once-friendly ties with Israel have deteriorated rapidly over Israel’s 2010 killing of Turkish activists in a Gaza-bound aid convoy. The crisis has underscored Israel’s growing isolation and the new limits of U.S. influence in the Middle East.

“The president underscored his interest in seeing a resolution of that issue between those two countries and encouraged continuing work toward that end,” White House adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall told reporters after the meeting, saying Obama also emphasized the need to calm tensions throughout the region.

White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama would make the same points to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he meets him on Wednesday.

The two leaders also discussed Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s unrelenting crackdown on anti-government protests has alarmed neighboring Turkey and led to U.S. calls he step aside.

Obama and Erdogan agreed on the need to increase pressure on Assad and agreed to consult on possible further steps that “could include sanctions, political pressure, other measures,” Rhodes said.

Obama and Erdogan, in their public comments to reporters, focused on deadly attacks in Turkey on Tuesday that they agreed underscored the need for cooperation on counterterrorism.

“This reminds us that terrorism exists in many parts of the world, and Turkey and the United States are going to be strong partners in preventing terrorism,” Obama said.

An explosion from a suspected car bomb ripped through a street in the Turkish capital, Ankara, near a neighborhood housing government buildings, killing three people.

Also on Tuesday, Kurdish guerrillas attacked a police college in southeastern Turkey, killing four people in a passing vehicle, broadcaster CNN Turk reported on its website.


Erdogan said the United States and Turkey needed to “work together in planning, use technology so that we can continue to take more steps in trying to fight against terrorism.”

Turkey is in talks with the United States to provide a base for a fleet of U.S. Predator drones now stationed in Iraq. It is reported to want surveillance drones to carry out operations against Kurdish separatist rebels based in northern Iraq.

The Obama administration is seeking to preserve close ties with Turkey, an increasingly assertive economic and military power in the region that has become a champion of democracy movements roiling the Arab world.

Ankara backed efforts that led to the ouster of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and aids U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan, and plays a crucial role in neighboring Iraq.

Obama praised Erdogan for “great leadership” in promoting democracy in the region. But problems remain.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Turkey on Monday not to do anything to worsen its relationship with Israel.

Israeli-Turkish relations have spiraled downward in recent weeks with the release of a U.N. report on the 2010 flotilla raid, in which Israeli commandos raid killed nine Turkish activists, and Israel’s refusal to apologize to Ankara.

Erdogan’s government has expelled Israel’s envoy, frozen military cooperation and warned that the Turkish navy could escort future aid flotillas — raising the prospect of confrontation between Turkey and the Jewish state.

Erdogan has also kept up a stream of harsh rhetoric against Israel, using a tour of Arab states last week to support a Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations and chide Israel as a spoiled client of the West.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Peter Cooney)


Jordan’s Aqaba Port Thrives Amid Region’s Instability

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi


Immediately above:  Trucks transporting containers drive past the Port of Aqaba, 350 km (217 miles) south of Amman, September 18, 2011. It has not been as busy for a long while for vessel supervisor Mohammad Qassem, who is overseeing the loading of a commercial cargo ship that has just anchored in the sparkling blue waters of Jordan’s Aqaba port. Picture taken September 18, 2011.

REUTERS/Abraham Farajian

AQABA, Jordan (Reuters) – It has not been as busy for a long while for vessel supervisor Mohammad Qassem, who is overseeing the loading of a commercial cargo ship that has just anchored in the sparkling blue waters of Jordan’s Aqaba port.

“With all the problems around us, it’s amazing. These few months have been very active,” said Qassem, 49, near one of the port’s six large cranes at a berth that has become a huge construction site.
APM Terminals, part of the Danish A.P. Moller-Maersk Group, which won a 25-year contract to manage the port in 2006, has begun a $235 million investment to double the container terminal capacity’s to 1.5 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) by 2013.

“This will allow the port to reach new efficiency levels and enhance its role as a shipping hub for the Middle East and Levant,” said Soren Hansen, chief executive officer of Aqaba Container Terminal (ACT).

The fortunes of the port, which is wedged between Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and is Jordan’s only outlet to the sea, have fluctuated from boom to bust over the last several decades with every major political upheaval.

There was a golden era in the mid-1980s, when the port serviced Iraq during its eight-year war with Iran, and then a near-complete standstill during a U.S. naval blockade and United Nations sanctions in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The last watershed was a boom after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Now, as political unrest sweeps the Arab world, hurting trade flows through nearby ports including Syria’s Latakia and Tartous and Egypt’s Alexandria and Suez, Aqaba is enjoying a fresh revival.

“At the moment everyone is seeking security. Security is very, very important and Aqaba has it,” said Captain Mohamad Dalabieh, executive manager of Jordan’s Shipping Association.

“Aqaba is more of a political than an economic port.”

Last year, the port handled close to 16.8 million tonnes of freight, while throughput at its container terminal was around 605,000 TEU, almost double the level in 2003.

Since the start of this year, Aqaba has bucked the regional trend. Incoming cargo has climbed 27 percent from a year earlier to 6.69 million tonnes in the first eight months of 2011, while transit trade, mostly to Iraq, has jumped 68 percent, according to data from port authorities.

A major reason is the turmoil in Syria, where the political unrest and international economic sanctions have sharply cut the use of Syrian ports for regional transit trade. Much of this business is now going through Aqaba.

Another factor is U.S. military cargo being transported out of Iraq and through Aqaba as U.S. forces scale back their presence in that country, local shippers say.

“U.S. army cargo is trucked all the way from their bases in Iraq to both terminals in Aqaba, containers as well as general cargo, and this is helping boost traffic,” said Dreid Mahasneh, a former head of Aqaba port and a prominent shipper.

Both factors are expected to be temporary; U.S. forces are due to complete all or at least the vast bulk of their withdrawal from Iraq by the end of this year, while Syria’s port business should recover when the country eventually regains political stability.

But Jordanian officials hope that even when calm returns to the region, Aqaba will be able to hang on to much of the business it has gained this year — particularly business related to the reconstruction of Iraq.

Port officials estimate as much as 40 percent of Aqaba’s incoming cargo is destined for Iraq, while ACT’s Hansen predicts total container throughput will rise 15 percent to around 700,000 TEU this year, mainly driven by Iraqi transit demand.

Shippers say Umm Qasr, Iraq’s main port, may not have enough capacity to handle the volume of imports that many predict Iraq will need when it begins reconstruction in earnest. Aqaba may also be helped by bottlenecks at Umm Qasr that include poor service and high handling costs.

“Iraqi cargo has increased to Aqaba simply because there are so much bureaucracy, capacity limitations and corruption…” Mahasneh said.


After years of underinvestment, ACT officials say the construction underway at Aqaba will allow the port to become a key conduit for regional trade on a permanent basis. Bulldozers are cutting more of the rugged mountains by the port’s tiny sliver of coast to make more space.

The average stay for a vessel is now 12-14 hours, down from two to three days several years ago, ACT officials say. The turnaround time for loading and unloading trucks has dropped to 40 minutes compared to as much as 48 hours in 2004.

“Aqaba is now working at nearly 60 percent of its capacity. We can handle at least 25 million tonnes annually with ease,” Dalabieh said.

Shippers say, however, that without improved efficiency in Jordan’s fleet of over 16,000 trucks, other competing regional ports could undercut Aqaba.

“Turkish, Iraqi and Kuwaiti ports, each of them have an edge. Jordan has a phenomenal opportunity to strengthen its position for Iraqi trade — but all components of the supply chain must work together,” said Hansen.

(Editing by Andrew Torchia)


“Mideast Tunes” Jams for Change

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

“We work against repression, discrimination and persecution” ~ Mideast Youth

guitarsIt’s no secret that the recent “Arab Awakening”, which has already toppled a couple of Middle East governments and sent others into a tailspin, could never have reached such epic proportions as it has without the Internet and specifically social media outlets. Countless numbers of protests and mass amounts of information have been catapulted into the global arena, courtesy of bloggers and social media activists. The power of the Internet has proven to be a force to be reckoned with–much to the chagrin of governments seeking to quash its effect. For the youth, in particular, social media is not only an excellent way to share information but it is also a vital way to cope with the anger and frustration that comes as a direct result of the political upheaval.

Most youths in the Middle East have to deal with political turmoil from the time they are born and many, unfortunately, will have to grapple with it right up until their deaths. For this reason many youths turns to different forms of self-expression, such as art or music, to cope.  Some politically active youths have taken to the underground to create unique music stylings that would be unwelcome, and in many cases illegal, in the mainstream media of their specific country. For years, the underground politically “amp-ed” music scene of the Middle East was one that was rarely seen and even less heard. But thanks to MidEast Youth, which is a grassroots cyber social activism network based in the Middle East, more and more youths have a welcome platform to share their politically-inspired music with the world.

In 2010 Mideast Youth launched Mideast Tunes, which is an online cyber stage that showcases the musical talents of various underground solo artists and bands in the Middle East. According to the mission statement on its website, “Mideast Tunes is dedicated to providing a platform for emerging musicians in the Middle East. Our aim is to encourage, inspire and expose talented young artists across the region.” The genres featured on the site range from heavy metal to hip-hop and everything in between. Some of the current artists featured include ‘Sop’ which is a hip-hop band based in Palestine and ‘Disturb the Balance’ which is an alternative rock band based in Saudi Arabia. The tunes may be different but all of the artists featured on Mideast Tunes share the same plight to create viable and positive social change with their music.

The website does not charge users or bands a fee for features to ensure that everyone has the freedom share their voice. However, it does rely heavily on donations to keep it up and running.