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Raffique Shah


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An 'old boys club' headed by an old lady

Commonwealth 2009 Heads of State
Commonwealth 2009 Heads of State (Large Image)

By Raffique Shah
November 29, 2009

Friday morning. Big day for Prime Minister Patrick Manning. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II heads a list of dignitaries attending the CHOGM. Over the next three days Trinidad and Tobago, this small country, will showcase its wonderful Chinese architecture to our envious Commonwealth brethren. Look at me! Watch my costume (including my brand-name 'darkers' that I don't take off, not even to look Her Majesty in the eye, as royal etiquette demands). Don't mash my Performing Arts cape! I'm on the world stage!

So your not-so-humble scribe, who will be nowhere close to where the CHOGM action is, decides to check out the main newspapers in some Commonwealth countries. Surely such an important, $300 million conference, being staged in my country, will command headlines in the principal participating countries.

I check the Times (London and India), the Guardian (UK), the Independent and I stop! What the hell is wrong with these editors? Don't they realise that Port of Spain is the centre of global activities, at least for the weekend? All the British newspapers lead with the 'Dubai debacle', trying to measure the impact the US$80 billion sand-castles' collapse would have on their already beleaguered banking systems.

Who cares about Dubai, about Sheikh Maktoum's folly in building not only billion-dollar sand-castles, but entire off-shore islands, the world's biggest this and tallest that, and two snow skiing complexes (yes, you read right) in the middle of the desert? Who gives a sucrier fig about his plight-except multi-millionaires like David Beckham and other celebrities who bought ultra-expensive real estate on dubious man-made islands?

I turn to India's press. India is probably the strongest pillar on which the Commonwealth is built. Have you noted how many Indians occupy the highest positions in its Secretariat and its many off-shoot institutions? Surely, the Indians would highlight the conference in Trinidad, which their Prime Minister, Mr Manmohan Singh, is attending.

Again, I am disappointed. Both the Times of India and the Hindustan Times lead, with pride, I should add, how India has joined with superpowers like the US, Britain and other EU countries in calling on Iran to halt its nuclear programme. I scratch my head: is India not a nuclear power? Is this not a country that has not only several nuclear power plants, but nuclear bombs and warheads?

Anyway, there is never justice or equity in global affairs, so why am I surprised? I scan the Hindustan Times: aha! Here a dateline from Port of Spain! We reach (translation for Her Majesty: we have arrived!) I read the story. From top to bottom, Prime Minister Singh, interviewed by some Indian journalist, is still gushing about the gala dinner hosted in his honour by US President Barack Obama.

He tells the press at the Indian High Commission: 'It was a unique experience. The dinner was lavish and extravagant. The atmosphere and the layout was (sic) outstanding,' He said President Obama and his wife Michelle had laid (sic) out 'one of the best dinners and went out of the way' and was a 'magnificent' event. 'It was a great experience and I enjoyed being there. It was one of the best dinners that I have attended,'

Clearly 'Manmo' is a man who loves good food and better company. But the Indian reporters asked him nothing about Trinidad and Tobago, about CHOGM. Or if they did and they forwarded their stories, their editors did not think they were of any value to India and Indians. India's focus must now be on reining in Iran even if that meant raining Israeli bombs on the country that, two years ago, signed an agreement with Delhi to pipe much needed natural gas to feed its growing industrial needs.

Do I hear someone shout, 'Neemakharam!' I do, but that from another source and used in another context-some internal party elections. But all of the above still leave me with the question: what of Mr Manning's pride, CHOGM? Why have the vast majority of Commonwealth countries' media houses chosen to ignore us in our hour of glory?

Except for the local press and electronic media houses, no one else seems to be taking this $300 million bash seriously. Don't they understand what this means for Mr Manning's ego?

There will be no lessons learned from this hollow experience. The Commonwealth is nothing more than an 'old boys club' headed by an old lady (quite a contradiction, eh?). It is passť, an anomaly in a modern world where alliances have changed, where geopolitics dictate who are your new friends, who matter, and who don't.

We should never have committed ourselves to staging this conference. It adds nothing to our economy, to our development. A handful of entrepreneurs may benefit from new deals-hopefully by exporting our skills and rich experience in the downstream energy sector. We didn't need CHOGM for that.

Did people notice the full-page advertisements in last weekend's newspapers offering scores of jobs in Qatar? Mr Manning's vision of 'development' is similar to Dubai's Sheikh Maktoum's, whose name is now mud in global financial circles. Is that the way our Prime Minister wants to exit the political stage? I should hope not.

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