Learning from the past

Much more support should be provided to investigators that are working to retrieve the artefacts looted in Iraq since the war. Iraqi businesses may be struggling at the moment, but one part of the country’s economy that has never looked back since the war started has been the black market in ancient antiquities.

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By  Richard Agnew Published  December 18, 2005

|~||~||~|Much more support should be provided to investigators that are working to retrieve the artefacts looted in Iraq since the war. Iraqi businesses may be struggling at the moment, but one part of the country’s economy that has never looked back since the war started has been the black market in ancient antiquities. With thousands of archaeological sites across the country remaining unguarded, and gangs of organised looters taking full advantage of over-stretched security forces to dig up and sell artefacts, large parts of Iraq’s cultural heritage have been systematically stripped down and transported abroad. The country’s National Museum, which was heavily raided back in April 2003, shortly after the coalition’s invasion, has also still to recover many of its most valuable pieces. As we reveal this week, though, the most worrying aspect of the situation is how, globally, many governments have turned a blind eye to the international trade in stolen antiquities. Despite the allocation of millions of dollars since the war to the restoration of museums in Iraq and training of their staff, much less emphasis has been placed on actually recovering the thousands of items that have already been stolen — many of which are probably sitting in collectors’ and dealerships’ showcases in the capitals of the West. Col. Matthew Bogdanos, the man placed in charge of recovering artefacts stolen from the National Museum in 2003, says no governments have provided additional cash to police forces purely for investigating the black market that has emerged in Iraqi antiquities. Also, Michel van Rijn, an independent based in the UK who works to retrieve stolen works of art, says the lack of major arrests since the looting escalated shows that investigators are struggling to get close to the significant players in the smuggling food chain. Iraq’s heritage stretches as far back as the birth of civilisation, so to allow this situation to continue would be unforgiveable. Those involved in planning the invasion in 2003 should have done a much better job of pre-empting the looting, and more to correct their mistake. But they are not the only ones with responsibility. No government should ignore what is essentially a battle to protect our shared history — whatever its stance on the war. ||**||Good viewing|~||~||~|Many elements of the new media industry may still be a pipedream in the Middle East, but ART’s pledge to roll out an interactive TV platform next year is at least another sign that media companies are willing to invest creatively in an attempt to solve the unique difficulties of the regional market. The move, set for the first quarter of 2006, will see a new suite of interactive services offered to viewers of the broadcaster’s various TV packages. It is a brave one, considering the costs of rolling out the platform, and that interactivity has been shown in markets elsewhere in the world to be a means of generating incremental revenue increases from TV firms’ existing customers, rather than a major cash earner. But it is also worth applauding for its inventiveness. By sidestepping regional telcos' fixed line networks — many of which are still subject to monopolies — and using mobile networks instead to connect to its customers, ART has overcome a challenge that has proved a barrier to the region’s broadcasting industry for too long.||**||On the reform path|~||~||~|Saudi Arabia may still face huge economic and political challenges, but the head of its investment authority, Amr Dabbagh is making all the right noises about the kingdom’s future development strategy. Dabbagh, in charge of attracting the FDI needed to upgrade Saudi’s infrastructure and offset its rapid population growth, is shaking things up as he vies to market the kingdom internationally to prospective investors. Although much of the foreign investment the kingdom seeks will still ultimately stay in its traditional petrochemical sector, the coming twenty years are sure to see hundreds of billions of dollars flowing into the kingdom. And although the price of oil has hovered between US$50 and US$70 per barrel in recent times, swelling state coffers, he is committed to diversifying the country’s economy. Let’s hope his commitment doesn’t waver as the country attempts to push through further reforms.||**||

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