Africa/Middle East / Global
How Islam helped US capitalism in Somalia and why women in Saudi buy cars they can't drive.
Drink war 1: Coke
The familiar red and white logo looks pristine against the whitewashed walls. Inside the factory, uniformed staff stack cases of the ubiquitous hourglass bottles.
Only the occasional sound of gunfire and the presence of armed guards for the delivery trucks betray a sense that this Coca-Cola bottling factory is different from any other in the world.
Somalis like their fizzy drinks. Go to any home, meet any politician, and you are more likely to be offered Coke, Sprite or Fanta than a traditional cup of sweet tea. But war is not good for business. As Somalia tore itself apart after a military dictatorship was overthrown in 1991, international companies pulled out. If a Somali wanted a bottle of Coke, it had to be imported from the Gulf.
But for the past three years Bashir Mohammed has been running Somalia’s official Coca-Cola franchise. The United Bottling Company employs 120 people and serves more than 3,000 stockists in Mogadishu. The concentrate is delivered from a Coca-Cola factory in Swaziland and Bashir sends daily reports to Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta.
A coalition of Islamists controlled Mogadishu for six months last year after they drove out the warlords who had ruled for the past 15 years. With US support, Ethiopia helped overthrow the Islamists in the New Year. The US warned that the Islamic Courts were “extremists to the core” and run by “an Al Qaeda cell”. But in Mogadishu’s heart of American capitalism, the Coke factory, Bashir and his sales manager, Mohammed Hassan Awale, take a different view.
“When the Islamic Courts were here, there was peace,” says Bashir. “If there is no peace, we cannot work.”
Checkpoints run by warlords have sprung up again across the city. Bashir’s delivery trucks are regularly stopped to pay bribes – something that became a rarity while the Islamic Courts were in charge.
Drink war 2: coffee
Starbucks finally made it to Egypt two months ago with two cafés in Cairo and one in Alexandria. But its arrival has not been as smooth as its lattes. First the firm had to deal with local chain Cilantro which stole a march with its launch in 2000. The local brand, part of Delicious Inc and owned by Hesham El-Sewedy, already has 23 branches. Now Starbucks faces renewed problems after becoming the target of a boycott campaign organised by a coalition of Islamists, reformists and socialists. The Kuwaiti conglomerate Alshaya, which has brought Starbucks to the region, is unruffled and plans to open 50 stores in Egypt. Meanwhile Cilantro hopes to follow the Starbucks model and launch its brand globally.
Nigeria & Mali
Nigeria, 21 April—Presidential elections
Who is in power?
Nigeria is governed by President Olusegun Obasanjo of the People’s Democratic Party. The retired army general and born-again Christian has served twice as the nation’s head of state: once as military ruler between 1976 and 1979 and then as elected president in 1999. Despite his concerted efforts, this month Obasanjo will come to the end of the maximum two-term presidency. His rule has not been able to cure the country’s economic woes, virulent corruption or poor human-rights record.
Who are the challengers?
Election favourite is Umaru Yar’Adua of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, who is one of the few governors not currently under investigation for corruption, and is supported by the outgoing President Obasanjo. Main opposition parties include the All Nigeria People’s Party and the Action Congress Party, which have recently formed an electoral pact to counter the considerable power of the PDP.
Mali, 29 April—First round presidential elections
Who is in power?
Mali is run by President Amadou Toumani Touré who, unusually, is not a member of any political party. The government is led by Prime Minister Ousmane Issoufi Maïga and is made up of representatives from all the political parties in the country. Touré is known as the “Soldier of Democracy” for his role in overthrowing military leader Moussa Traoré in 1991, and has been in power since the 2002 election.
Who are the challengers?
Touré’s main opponent is likely to be the former head of the National Assembly and current leader of the Rally for Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Kéïta. The sympathy of unaligned parliamentary groups such as the Democratic and Social Convention and the National Renaissance Party, will be key to Kéïta’s success, although at present the re-election of President Touré still seems the most likely outcome.
The Gay vote
Like a Russian Ross Perot or Middle Eastern Michael Bloomberg, billionaire businessman Arcadi Gaydamak has suddenly emerged as Israel’s most unlikely political heavyweight.
Soviet born, with a French-made fortune and a trail of criminal allegations leading from London to Luanda, the 52-year-old expat-oligarch recently established his new Social Justice movement which is squarely aimed at Israel’s disaffected masses. Backed by his own deep pockets and buoyed by the support of Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu, Gaydamak is positioning himself as a “shadow” rival to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his fragile coalition government.
“He’s focusing purely on socioeconomic rather than security issues – pushing the boundaries of what politics means in Israel,” observes international political consultant Dahlia Scheindlin. “It’s a direct appeal to voters via activities designed to elicit an emotional response at the expense of an overall coherent agenda,” she adds. Although he has yet to personally declare himself a candidate for any specific office, Gaydamak’s tenor – and timing – could not be more shrewd.
With the nation still reeling from last summer’s Lebanon war and a string of corruption and morality scandals stretching straight to Olmert’s office, Gaydamak’s proactive brand of populism contrasts sharply with Israel’s current political inertia.
Never mind that France still hopes to try Gaydamak for tax evasion, money laundering and €670m of illegal weapons trading with Angola. Or that even in Israel – where he fled from Paris in 2000 and now owns a pair of professional sports teams and a trio of luxury villas – Gaydamak was recently investigated for additional money-laundering charges.
Having donated millions to house war refugees last summer and now targeting everyone from Israeli Arabs to the country’s million-strong Russian-speaking community, Gaydamak is staking his considerable fortune on controlling Israel’s political future.
“This is still just stage one of his long-term plans,” says Shimon Shiffer, chief diplomatic and political correspondent for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot.
“Gaydamak already has the money and the political influence – and he is using that influence very wisely.”
When it comes to women and cars, Saudi Arabia is something of an anomaly. Women can’t apply for licences and are banned from driving – based on an unwritten rule that even government officials have begun to question publicly. But despite the ban, Saudi women are a key market for car dealers. Many buy, sell and custom-order one, two, even four or five at a time. They just need to make sure that they employ a male driver.
Zahra Reza, a 42-year-old Saudi mother of four, is a car dealer’s dream, “I have a four-wheel-drive Pajero for when we are going on big outings with the kids for shopping, I have a BMW for when I’m going out with my lady friends, I have another, larger BMW for outings with the kids when we are going to their friends’ homes, and then of course the family car when we all go out, with my husband as well – a Mercedes.” Her husband also has his own car.
For years, women chose cars based on brochures that their husbands brought home. But last December the first exclusively female-staffed car showroom opened in Riyadh, allowing women buyers to go in and browse – and even have a sit behind the wheel and talk engine sizes. They are not allowed, however, to take the vehicles for a test drive – and the issue remains so contentious that the dealership prefers not to be named. But Reza says airily: “Between us, my friends and I have far more cars than our husbands!” In Saudi, cars are like handbags for wealthy women: you can never have enough of them.