James Denselow


James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues.

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James writes regularly for The Guardian and has written articles for Middle East International, The Huffington Post The New Statesman, Syria Today, The World Today, The Daily Telegraph and The Yorkshire Post. He has been cited in many international publications including The Boston Globe, Voice of America, The Sunday Telegraph, Reuters and AFP

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James writes book, television and film reviews for International Affairs, Middle East International, The Arab and The Guardian

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In The Media

James in the media - Watch James discussing Middle East issues on a variety of media platforms including the BBC, Al Jazeera and Russia Today
Oman – The Middle East’s Best Kept Secret PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Tuesday, 26 January 2016 09:10

Despite 2015 seemingly dominated by violence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, tourism in the Middle East saw a 3% increase in visitor numbers. As the spread of ISIS’s targets reach out into tourism hot spots like Turkey and Egypt cautious tourists are left asking is there any safe place to visit in the region?

Oman, nestled at the foot of Arabia, is home to 3.6 million people and some of the most beautiful geography in the region. Blessed with some 3,165 kilometres of coastline and stunning mountain ranges, the Sultanate has succeeded in that rare task of keeping out of the Middle East’s headlines.


The country has a peace first approach that sees itself act as a mediator of some of the toughest politics in the region. Being situated between Iran and Saudi Arabia perhaps forces such an approach and the country walks a delicate line keeping good relations with both. Indeed the country played a key role as host to the Iranian nuclear talks, has been involved in bringing together the parties to the Syrian conflict and has managed to avoid getting sucked into the fighting to its direct west in Yemen.

Senior Omani civil servants describe their country’s role as that of ‘the quiet diplomat’ avoiding large scale publicity at expense of getting a grip to some of the region’s toughest problems. Such a problem solving approach has also extended beyond the region with the Sultanate’s willingness to accept prisoners from Guantanamo Bay a huge part of Obama’s attempt to close the camp before the end of his presidency.

Yet security is not the country’s biggest challenge, rather the nosedive in oil prices that has forced some serious changes to the economy and a concerted attempt to diversify, with tourism nearing the top of that list of priorities. However the Oman’s strategy is not to replicate mass resorts such as those of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt or on Turkey’s Mediterranean cost, but rather offer a more refined, exclusive and expensive experience for smaller numbers of richer tourists.

So far many of the visitors have come from by word of mouth with repeat visitors from Germany and Britain leading the way as well as steady numbers from the nearby Gulf. New hotel infrastructure and a new airport are all in development and Oman will need to think about visitor experiences in the stifling summer and perhaps adopt a more pragmatic policy towards the hard to get alcohol licenses going forward. The country’s state of the art museum, facing the Sultan’s palace in the centre of Muscat, is soon to be opened and the capital’s Opera House was finished in 2011 complete with Italian marble and Austrian chandeliers.

According to UN figures Oman has developed more in last 40 years than any other country on planet and the Muscat skyline is dominated by cranes and construction. Meanwhile halfway down the coast the free zone of Duqm, once a small fishing village, is nearing completion complete with a new port, airport and hotels expected to host some 30,000-40,000 tourists a year. Whilst Dubai and the Gulf offer incredible skylines and record breaking architecture, the Omanis focus on low rise and more subtle demonstrations of their country’s highlights. The largest single tourist site is probably the Muscat Grand Mosque complete with a 14m chandelier and space for 8,000 worshippers. But perhaps the hidden jewel in the hidden Sultanate is the offer of not only getting up early to see the first sunrise in the Gulf, but also to witness the life cycle of turtles, creatures who predate humanity and who nest in the several of the county’s beaches.

Beyond the geography and the sights what I took away from a recent trip to the country was the incredibly warmth and hospitality of the Omani people. An official said to me that Oman sees itself as an Indian Ocean state that faces out not a Gulf state that faces in, as secrets go I’d imagine its not long till many more know about what the Sultanate has to offer.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 26 January 2016 09:26
 
Learning to Love Iraq PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Saturday, 16 January 2016 18:54

(Huffington Post) The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq" - Emma Sky (Atlantic Books, 2015)

Coming some years after the glut of writing that accompanied the US-led Occupation of Iraq is this unusual and unlikely story of 'a British woman, advising the top leadership of the US military' (p.4). That woman is Emma Sky who was a 35 year old working for the British Council when the American tanks rolled into Baghdad. Sky had spent time already working abroad and in the Middle East, although her only experience of Iraq was her previous opposition to conflicts in the country and she'd signed up to be a human shield in 1991. Suddenly she found herself on a military transport plane out to the region in response to a FCO advert.

Sky can be described as a romantic liberal of sorts whose subsequent experience with the US military opened her mind to a very different culture of working. She warns herself that 'Mesopotamia will always get the better of those who come to love her' (p.89) and the book is a very honest appraisal from someone who clearly cares deeply for the country and the people she has spent time working with. It also is that of a wanderer, an only child whose time at boarding school seemed to give a drive and direction that found its calling in Iraq. Sky describes how 'I had felt so alive in Iraq, with such a strong sense of purpose. The best times of my life - and the hardest times - were in Iraq' (p.362). Her enthralling, readable and fascinating account is simultaneously 'an Iraqi story. It is an American story. It is my story' (p.341)

The account is far more than that of a liberal leaning British woman working in the heart of a US male-dominated military machine at war. Sky's political acumen and ability to gain the trust of senior figures placed her in the cockpit of US efforts in Iraq. She was no ordinary advisory and this book is not only a tale of observations but rather of influence in practice whether that was around high level efforts on sectarian reconciliation, the SOFA discussions that would determine the nature of the US presence in the country or important prisoner swaps.

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Starving Syria PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Saturday, 16 January 2016 18:50

(Al Jazeera) Nobody should doubt the tactics that the Syrian regime and its allies will countenance in order to win this war. The horror of Madaya has been told in the pictures of emaciated children and the stories of people forced into eating cats, dogs, grass and whatever else they can find to survive. Starvation can be added to a list that includes chemical weapons, barrel bombs, massacres and indiscriminate artillery use on built-up urban areas.

Madaya had previously seen a single food distribution on October 18 before a stranglehold took place that has now seen huge suffering for an estimated 40,000 residents. In Madaya, 25 miles away from Bashar al-Assad's presidential palace, 23 Syrians, including children, starved to death last month. Others risk landmines and sniper fire to do whatever they can to keep their families alive.

Seen in isolation, the story of Madaya could appear as just another tragic chapter in the story of Syria's bloody civil war. However, the tactics of starvation have both context and history, while lessons can be learned about how media attention and pressure have led to access being promised for aid and desperately needed relief.

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Syria 2016: Can things get any worse? PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Saturday, 16 January 2016 18:41

(Al Araby al Jaded) Next month, we will mark five years of unrelenting, grinding conflict in Syria. What was a relatively under-reported country is now better known as a place of chemical weapon use, famine and massacres.

Syria has become a byword for chaos and complexity, its layered conflicts featuring local, regional and international dimensions in a blood-soaked Rubik's Cube that appears unsolvable. Instead, as people pick up the pieces of their lives away from destroyed homes and lost relatives, some cling to the hope that all conflicts end, eventually, and that the future must be better than a present so desperate and tragic for all those touched by it.

So is there hope for the year ahead or will the grim roll call of statistics - a quarter of a million dead, half the country forced from their homes - simply keep building?


2015 saw a number of significant moments in the conflict. The arrival of Russia as a serious military player into the conflict, the rise and apparent decline of IS - the world's new public enemy number one - and finally a peace process that saw enemies and allies sit around a table in Vienna and decide that the conflict in Syria was far too important to be left to the Syrians.

The Vienna process and its timetable of ceasefires, talks and constitutional progression is a sliver of light in the darkness and represents the best chance out of the downward spiral of violence.

Vienna's ambitions are high and the potential for events to destabilise them is great. We've already seen how peace envoy De Mistura's work on local ceasefires has seen IS-linked fighters evacuated from Yarmouk camp in Damascus, but only after the killing by the regime of an opposition leader had put the whole deal in jeopardy.

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Abadi: The leader who follows PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Thursday, 29 October 2015 10:42

Who'd be in charge of Iraq, a country where state institutions are barely functioning and continued civil conflict rages with an estimated 10,000 to 13,000 active IS fighters in the country?


Electricity supplies remain strained, corruption is so bad that protests are frequently and violently put down, and a breakdown in the sewage infrastructure recently saw an outbreak of cholera.

Read more...
 
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