Big Mustache – a Tale of Arab World Governance

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I was struck by a recent report in the LA Times – some residents of Mukalla, al-Qaeda’s former capital in southern Yemen, express nostalgia for the terror group. How is it that groups such as al-Qaeda continue to outdo local governments in providing basic services? The answer is governance. Governance is key to deal with the scourge of terrorism, because almost every government in MENA is a corrupt mafia with flags & UN recognition. Allow me to explain, by telling a story.

Country X is ruled by Big Mustache Y, who is in power indefinitely. He exacts a commission on every business deal the state engages in, and only his close relatives are allowed to make money – everyone else has to wait in line hoping to get a state job. His loyalists take over everything generating money in the country; telecoms go to his wife’s nephews, oil & gas logistics contracts go to his cousin, food import goes to his front man/main ally, mining goes to his son and the military has priority access to budgets. They’re all happy.

Big Mustache’s son goes to school in the West, learns the ins and outs of off-shoring, lobbying and influence peddling. He uses the embassy where he goes to school as a booking service to bring mining, oil & gas, electricity then funnels the bribes to off-shore accounts. One day, Big Mustache sets his eyes on his former ally’s bank and businesses. He orders a tax audit, and the auditor general locks up the bank’s VP then seizes its assets. Meanwhile, the owner has fled into exile, so they issue an Interpol arrest warrant against him. Goal achieved: the main economic competitor has been removed.

Meanwhile, Big Mustache is busy strengthening his ties with the West presenting himself as a rampart against terrorism. He does this while actually talking quietly to some radical elements, buys their silence but gives them free hand to prosyletize as they wish. Big Mustache also has an election coming up, so he sends word to the remaining businessmen including his associate that they have to chip in – $1 Million or else.. they all comply. See, Big Mustache believes in democracy, where his party has all the resources of the state and the armed forces, controls the Interior Ministry, and even has his own handpicked pliant opposition he made to replace the other opposition, the noisy one. Meanwhile, Big Mustache makes sure that business booms for himself, and the people follows his example. Is your electricity bill too high? Pay %25 of it, then give your electricity company’s agent another %25 to forget about this and the next 12 months of bills.

Big Mustache gives a speech praising all his achievements, which you watch on YouTube whilst waiting for the doctor to show up in the state-owned hospital – where you had to bribe the nurse to let you in. But that bribe doesn’t mean you don’t have to buy the disinfectant & stitches that the doctor will use to close your kid’s wound yourself. Big Mustache said publicly that healthcare is excellent, but when he got sick he flew to Europe to get treatment. All the high ranking officials do the same. All of his grandsons were born in Western hospitals – and by the way all his kids went to the local American/French school, but the happy citizens have to pay for private schools. If you’re poor, which you probably are given the state of affairs, you’re stuck with public schools where the teachers moonlight in private schools to make ends meets, often not showing up for class.

Big Mustache says poverty is on the decline, and says ppl shouldn’t get lazy and have to work. The problem is that unemployment is over %25. The World Bank chips in with a scheme to provide food assistance to poor families but… they have to have a bank account. So Big Mustache kindly directs his government to steer the World Bank scheme for poor families to open bank accounts in his associate’s bank, making sure the fees charged by the bank are adequately high. Win-win, everyone’s happy – the World Bank got to run their scheme, Big Mustache gets his cut, and poor people now have bank accounts!

The latest reports on human development show that Big Mustache’s reign saw the country tank on all indicators. Transparency reports show the country is one of the worse places to invest in — there’s no rule of law. The government’s response? Naaah, it’s all opposition talk – they’re trying to create rumours and undermine the government. During a tour in the countryside Big Mustache says his era saw an end to corruption, and that he is the poor man’s champion. Someone yells: we’re thirsty, give us water! Big mustache smiles, and says his speech that the worldwide economic crisis means that the people need to make more of a contribution – food and fuel prices can’t be lowered. All clap including his frontman handling food imports, and his partner who owns the biggest gas stations chain. Shortly afterward his guards beat up the impertinent fool who dared say water pumps broke months ago.

Big Mustache decides to build a new kickass port. He gives the contract to his construction guy. The project runs into delays, so Big Mustache orders the largest state-owned company to hand over its dollar reserves to fund the delays leaving the company without any reserves. The state-owned company’s workers go on strike because their bonuses were cut, and their part-time staff were fired. Meanwhile, the port is finally finished, with huge cost overruns, but no one is using it. Big Mustache decides to bring in a foreign partner to run it & split profits. The foreign partners abruptly end the negotiations, unbeknownst to Big Mustache his minister tried to shortchange the foreigners by demanding a $2 Million dollar additional payment on top of Big Mustache’s %8 commission for the deal to go ahead. The Minister decided to take the risk because he knew he’d be replaced sooner or later by his rival who happens to be the protege of Big Mustache’s wife. His gamble was to make a quick buck before he loses his job & any chance of making any money.

Meanwhile, the same foreign partners move one country over and strike a deal for the competing port within the first 90 days. Big Mustache now hard pressed, goes to Beijing to secure a loan to fill the deficit. He gets it but at an exorbitant interest rate. He has also grant the Chinese exclusive rights to the port for 30 years. He doesn’t care if the Chinese don’t spend a dime in the local economy. They throw in a couple of Telecom deals with a commission for him.

At the UNGA in New York in September, Big Mustache seeks a meeting with US officials to ask for a new defense package to deal with terrorism. But asks also their backing to secure new world Bank loans as his foreign debt hits %97 of GDP. He tells US officials in private that he’s their only chance to fend off the rising threat of terrorism, and that the risk is having another Arab spring. Only he an the military can guarantee stability. US officials are of two-minds on him – they know he’s a corrupt thief, but at the same time the Pentagon needs access to his territory to keep an eye on the terrorists next door. Besides, Congress has never heard of Big Mustache, so there’s no problem. Big Mustache thanks US officials for their prompt recognition of his last fraudulent election and their respect for his country’s “sovereignty”. In other words “give me money & back off”. The US officials are very happy to oblige. On his way back home, he stops in Paris for a quick break to sit with his French banker and the lawyer handling his offshore account. The first lady spends the time apartment-shopping for their newly-wed daughter.

Back home, the UN has declared that at least %20 of the population is “food insecure”, which is UNese for “starving”, and launches yet another scheme with ±30 Million dollars to buy them food. Meanwhile, mustache junior secures an uncontested bid for a Scandinavian electricity giant to build a power plant – he simply told them to ditch their original partner plus pay a modest $2 million fee or there will be no project. Deal closed before daddy shows up. The same day, the head of the EU mission praises Big Mustache’s economic progress and points out that GDP has grown over %5 the previous year. He also expresses satisfaction with the progress in human rights & democratization.

Here’s the kicker: Every single thing mentioned in this thread is %100 real – not a single bit was a product of my imagination, and in fact some of it was toned down. It’s a composite of the 22 Arab League member states edited for clarity and less violence. Big Mustache is a composite of their leaders, the world’s foremost terrorism manufacturers. One cannot underestimate how much bad governance drives entire societies to madness, but it’s also so difficult to understand if you haven’t experienced it – to westerners, this is a parallel reality. You have to strip away the usual discourses in order to FEEL what’s it like to live under these regimes. Only then can you grasp how terrorist groups thrive.

Big Mustache updates: whilst this article was in editing: 

– Big Mustache ordered a 4G telecom tender to be opened after he cornered a deal with a foreign operator: he’ll have %20 shares of the new venture +a $5 Million payment. Big mustache is happy!

– Egyptian intelligence sets up a web of companies to import Israeli gas with public $ but through offshore screens avoiding paying taxes in Egypt, making millions – the investigative piece by @hossambahgat shows how Egyptian intelligence set up the screen companies where it owns %90 stakes & run by big mustaches – all ex military & 2 civilians as a cover. Classic big Mustache moves.