Yemen Update: Saleh’s Sojourn to Saudi and What It Means

By Jay Holmes

Last week, a rocket hit Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s personal mosque at his home in Yemen. It killed three of Saleh’s bodyguards and his personal Imam. Saleh and others were wounded and flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment.

The hospitals in Yemen could have handled the medical treatment with less delay. Saleh’s decision to be flown to Saudi Arabia is an indication that he believes he would not be safe in a hospital in Yemen. On that point, Saleh and I agree. Naturally, many of us are wondering about the significance of this attack.

The first step in making a guess about the impact of Saleh leaving Yemen is to venture a guess as to who might have ordered the attack. Instinctively, we might wish to assume that Al Qaeda type gangs of Islamic terrorists are behind the attack. Given how often that’s true, it’s a reasonable instinctive answer. In this particular case, though, I believe it to be the wrong answer.

Many of Yemen’s power elites have been hedging their political bets. For three decades, they have been able to “double down” on Saleh with confidence, but some of them have evidently lost their confidence in Saleh’s chances for staying in power. In the view of many powerful Yemenis, Saleh is no longer a safe bet.

Last week, an artillery attack was conducted against the home of powerful Yemeni businessman/politician Hamid Ahmar. Hamid and his brother are the leaders of the Hashid tribal confederation. I believe that the brothers were moving the confederation away from supporting president Saleh, and that Saleh is likely responsible for the attack on Hamid Ahmar. Saleh needed Ahmar dead, and he needed him dead fast. That opened the door for a quick and sloppy attempt. The attack on Saleh was likely retribution by the Ahmads. Both groups deny any involvement in attacking each other, and I don’t for a second believe either of them.

Saleh’s current host, the house of Saud, has openly encouraged Saleh to sign an agreement for a transitional government. In this case, transition means, “Adios Saleh. Don’t come back.” When the House of Saud makes a political move, it moves deliberately. It is unlikely that the Saudis will back down from wanting Saleh gone. They won’t kill him while he’s in their hands, but at this point, they wouldn’t mind him having an accident somewhere else.

From the Saudi point of view, any tribal confederation coming to power in Yemen is better than mayhem in Yemen because they are convinced that mayhem in Yemen will eventually be co-opted by an Al Qaeda type gang or by Iran. Which tribal chief pulls the strings in Yemen is not critical to the Saudis; they are confidant that they can work with any of them. What they don’t wish to deal with on their doorstep is chaos.

If the Ahmar family can bring the Hamid tribal confederation to a workable agreement on a new architecture for power in Yemen, then Saleh will have too little support left in Yemen to do anything.

To compare this to an American situation, for academic purposes think of The Paul Castellano/John Gotti mafia business arrangement. Castellano was a confident New York Capo and Gotti was his most important captain. Once Gotti convinced Sammy “the bull” Gravano and his crew to back him against Castellano, Castellano was a goner.

If Castellano had survived the hit in Manhattan on December 18, 1985 he still would not have held power as long as Gotti’s alliances were in effect. Other families would not pay for Castellano’s honor with their own families’ blood and money in a war to suppress the upstart John Gotti.

While I don’t foresee Saleh and his driver ending up dead on a Manhattan sidewalk, the same dynamic applies. The key to Saleh’s future has slipped from his hand. It is now in the hands of Hamid Ahmar and his brother. The Hashid confederation will decide the future of President Saleh. The Saudis have likely sent their best insurance salesman to Saleh’s quarters to sell him a guaranty of safety and comfort in Saudi Arabia. Saleh will hold out as long as he can for a “better” deal.

The Hashids are needed in order for foreign investors to safely finance the proposed new gas industrial development in Yemen. The project could make a very large dent in the 70% unemployment in Yemen. In fact, a well-run gas project could transform the Yemeni economy for decades.

China won’t admit it, but it is in silent agreement with the West about the Hashids bringing stability to Yemen. China and India would both like to buy gas from facilities in Oman and Yemen.

Iran, on the other hand, would like to see the Hashids fail. It will pretend that is for ideological reasons, but it is for financial and political reasons. Natural gas facilities in Oman and Yemen will make a natural gas depot in Iran far less valuable and will effectively reduce Iran’s bargaining position in world markets.

And what does any of this mean to us? I take it as good news. The Hashids have lost money and blood in the chaos. They want their profits and their sleep back. They want the natural gas project to happen. They cannot prosper under any radicals of any stripes. They want a functioning republican government that aggravates the masses less than the current one does and that continues to ignore the local matters in Hashid-controlled areas so that they can take their cut from the gas project.

So, that’s my guess. What’s your guess?

Special Edition Libya: Missiles and Missives

By Jay Holmes

As the White House’s “days not weeks” line has evolved to “don’t worry, just a few months,” the missile and aircraft attacks have degraded Gadhafi’s goon squad enough to allow the Benghazi-based rebels to push west to Bin Jawad on the coastal road to Sirte. Gadhafi has traditionally taken good care of the tribal alliances of the Sirte area so the rebels might find the going a bit rougher in Sirte and on to Tripoli.

A tactical analysis of the available forces, their assets, the geography, and the leadership in the theater of operations would be a fun exercise, but likely doesn’t matter much as long as the NATO forces continue their “if it moves and belongs to Gadhafi kill it” policy. At this point, the most critical tactics will not be employed on the coastal road to Tripoli or in the air above Libya and the Gulf of Sidra.

The most critical battles that need to be decided now are of a diplomatic nature, and they will not be won or lost with another shipload of bargain basement, Chinese made AK-47’s. Rumors are floating through the political sewers of Washington, London, Paris, and Rome that an escape is being proposed to Gadhafi. Western leaders have opted for the “sources high up in the administration” unofficial leak method of announcing efforts to arrange for Momo’s departure (live departure) from Libya.

The toughest thing about playing travel agent for uncle Momo is the fact that he has so many enemies in so many places. The second toughest aspect of planning his vacation is the fact that the few “friends” that would take him are themselves in no position to guarantee their own future let alone Gadhafi’s.

If Momo leaves, he has to go to a country that is willing and accustomed to ignoring the International Court of Justice. Joseph Mugabe and a few other lower budget despots would likely be willing to take Gadhafi if he brings some of his loot with him, or if the West is willing to pay them off in some other creative fashion. The creativity will not require any effort on our part because all despots have favors that they need or would like this week. They will all be quick to turn over their Christmas Wish List to us, in fact, and the poor diplomat that visits prospectively will have his ear filled with demands .

While the Italians are so far rumored to be the negotiators, my guess is that they will handle no more than the communications with Momo. It will take the US, France, and the UK to make a plausible deal with a “host country.”

Getting Momo gone is the obvious best alternative to grinding out a battle to take Tripoli while magically avoiding massive civilian casualties. The less obvious and far trickier part of the equation is encouraging a transition of power that will not threaten Western nations.

Regardless of public promises made and political careers incinerated, it would be hard to imagine Egypt and the Western nations tolerating a “Tehran West” situation in Tripoli. Some of the supposed leaders of the rebellion have presented a believable facade to the West, but there are clearly some Al Qaeda affiliates involved in the dance.

The best way to avoid a long military commitment in Libya is to invest heavily in helping to create an alternative to Momo that Egypt and the West can live with. It may require some work and a little leadership, but it’s doable. The supporters of the “Islamic Radical Domino Theory” tell us that radical Islamic terrorist states must, by force of nature, replace any government that falls in the mid-east and North Africa. This theory fails to take into account the diversity of cultural and political forces at play in Libya. The Tehran West scenario is avoidable.

Special Edition Libya: March 12, 2011

By Jay Holmes

In 2004, Moammar Gadhafi realized that he had to make a fundamental choice. Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups were on the rise in the Sahara. Moammar could no longer live in conflict with the oil-consuming, cash-delivering Western nations while watching the Islamic fundamentalists gain strength in Sudan, Algeria, and Tunisia. Moammar made the easy choice. He chose to look north toward Europe for his future.

From 2004 to the present, Libya has played host to a wide range of heads of state , foreign ministry officials, and banking leaders, including the leaders of the UK, Italy, Poland, Germany, and the Ukraine. The times and dates have varied, but the theme has remained constant. Gadhafi has been striving to present a believable “reformed” face to the Western media, while his visitors showed up with oil on their minds. Gadhafi increased his nation’s revenue by allowing more oil exploration and drilling. In doing so, he helped keep oil-consuming, industrialized nations from going into petroleum detox.

Uncle Momo’s willingness to suppress his strong instincts for havoc has been erratic. He has shown himself capable of delivering a speech denouncing Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, and issuing orders to send assassin teams to Malawi, Sudan, or Chad in the same day. Although Gadhafi and some of his family members did cause some trouble in the West, they also consistently avoided supporting European terror groups and blowing up airliners during this “reformed” stage of the Gadhafi saga.

Gadhafi demonstrates a clear interest in the family image makeover by presenting his son and heir apparent, Saif, as a kinder, gentler Dictator in Training. When Gadhafi wishes to back down from any harsh or oppressive measures, he frequently has Saif present the news to create the illusion that Saif Gadhafi is a more moderate influence on the regime.

Though many media commentators in the West accept Saif as a “Gadhafi for the new age,” I simply see him as a son who dutifully acts his part in the fashion that movie director Moammar commands. As fun-loving “liberals” go, Saif seems to be a bit trigger happy. Most liberals would not order their bodyguards to open fire on spectators at a soccer game simply because they booed his team. However, Saif did just that in Benghazi. Also, while Saif might not be deserving of any Oscars for his “moderate” performance, an oil-hungry West has been willing to pretend to believe it. I guess when you have enough oil to sell, you don’t have to be Gregory Peck or Lord Laurence Olivier to be believed.

Since Gadhafi felt no threat of retaliation from African nations, except from his well-armed Egyptian neighbors to his east, he demonstrated little restraint in Africa. Within Libya, itself, the population became more educated, more electronically connected to the world beyond its towns and cities, and somewhat more urban. They became, perhaps, somewhat less desperately connected to their tribal roots, and The Uncle Momo Show became less tolerable.

As Libyans watched the Ben Ali Kennel Club fold up shop in Tunisia and run off with their tails between their trembling, hitherto-unexercised legs, they perhaps felt more emboldened in their resistance to Moammar. While Libyans likely recognized Ben Ali and his particular canine pack as being “small mongrels” compared to Moammar and his wolves, the sight of the Mighty Mubarak leaving office had to seem like a miracle of sorts for Libyans and other Africans and Easterners. Mubarak commanded a well-armed and, by African standards, well-trained military, and yet, he was gone.

Libyans are attempting to seize the day in their large corner of the Sahara, but they face some major obstacles. Western leaders have thus far shown an unwillingness to commit to any military action. The minimal risk, low loss option of a “no-fly zone” spoken about by both UK and US leaders is now a few days later being described as a monumental undertaking requiring apparently more detailed planning and preparation than the 1944 invasion of Normandy and Prince William’s wedding combined. While last week it was presented as a casual “intervention light beer” option, this week the US and European governments have decided that it would first need support and approval of everyone, including Alaskan Eskimos and Australian aboriginal councils. Tribes in the upper Amazonian region are often difficult to locate so this could take a while.

When any Western government says, “Oh yes, we really will do it, just as soon as the UN is in agreement,” they are simply backing down without admitting it. If nothing else, UN participants can enjoy a temporarily upgraded illusion of doing important world business.

While US President and occasional Kenyan Barack Obama was busy explaining that we are “boxing in” Gadhafi, his Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that Colonel Gadhafi had a potentially decisive advantage in arms and equipment that would make itself felt as the conflict wore on, and that Gadhafi would win. Clapper’s performance before the US Senate audience begs several questions. Was this his view or the view that the White House instructed him to present as part of a Washington D.C. political magic show? If Obama and his staff were sincere in the surprise they demonstrated at Clapper’s statement, then why is the Director of National Intelligence not providing the President with his honest assessments in the middle of a major crisis?

Republicans were quick to respond with anger at what they claim is an undermining of the Libyan resistance and de-facto support for Moammar Gadhafi and his regime. Was Clapper doing a subtle sales job in an attempt to get Congress to demand action? If a demand for military action comes most loudly from Congress, then the White House will be able to take less of the blame for any negative consequences from that military action.

As a young, first term senator, Obama was happy to play the “I voted against war” card in his campaign for the presidency. Now that he’s president, it’s tougher to let the military do his bidding without taking a bit of the responsibility. I honestly can’t yet determine if Clapper is the flaming idiot that he presents himself as, or if he has simply been tossed on the fire before the Golden Ox of Congress. The discordant tones emanating from the White House are starting to sound depressingly like the sort of song that Uncle Momo, himself, would sing.

Suggestions are being voiced that, perhaps, it is time for the USA to dip into its strategic oil reserves. I disagree with the idea, but I am curious about the financial arrangements. Did taxpayers not pay for that oil to be pumped into those reserves? If so, then will Exxon be sending me a check for taking the oil? To prevent having to write so many checks, will the oil simply be passed out for free at the pump? Oh goody, I finally get to enjoy a visit to a gas station without bringing my wallet. We can’t be sure of the financial aspects of the deal, but we can be sure that, one way or another, most of us will continue to fill our tanks and to shop for groceries at a store that depends on diesel trucks for deliveries.

This morning, neither Uncle Momo nor his rebelling subjects can be sure of Washington’s and Europe’s intentions. If meaningful help will arrive for the rebels, it will have to come from the West, but it does not, at this moment, appear to be forthcoming. It is my impression that the anti-Gadhafi forces suffered a blow to their morale when they realized that the West is avoiding military action in Libya. Intelligence Director Clapper is right in his assessment of comparative forces, but, in my view, the key to success for the rebels will be their ability and willingness to cooperate amongst themselves and organize politically, as well as militarily.

It would be unwise for the rebels to use their limited supplies and capabilities in any further attempts to dislodge Gadhafi’s loyalists from the Tripoli area. Even with their limited equipment and supplies, they have an opportunity to oust the Gadhafi Circus by utilizing a mixture of patience and opportunistic ambush tactics whenever Gadhafi forces move. Gadhafi’s forces are not particularly vulnerable in Tripoli, but whenever they take to the roads, they and their supplies will be ripe for the picking.

That strategy will require cooperation and organization. One of the challenges to cooperation and organization amongst the Libyan rebels is that the Islamic radicals will continue to attempt to co-opt this Libyan revolution. The Libyan rebels have not called for my advice. We shall see how they evolve their nascent revolution. Their destiny is, after all, not in the hands of Obama or Western leaders in general. Their destiny is in their hands.

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Three-part history of Libya to help us understand the current dynamics of the unfolding situation.

Special Edition Libya: Timeline, Part I

Special Edition Libya: Timeline, Part II

Special Edition Libya: Timeline, Part III

What’s Up with Egypt?

Egyptians have been busy. In the last three weeks, they’ve ousted a ruler of almost three decades, they’ve seen their military dissolve parliament, and they have heartened anti-government protests in Yemen and Algeria. In today’s global society, such developments anywhere are important to people everywhere, yet reliable information is difficult for us average writers, bus drivers, school teachers, and other mere mortals to sift through when so many political enthusiasts are pushing their own agendas.

That’s why today, I am proud and pleased to bring you an objective analysis of the Egyptian situation that we can count on. My writing partner, Holmes, is a man with experience in intelligence and covert operations. That’s his description of himself because he is also a very humble man who would never willingly garner admiration or status. What you need to know as you read this, though, and this is coming from me, is that he is a man-in-the-know and an expert at political and military analysis. I’m honored today to bring you his take on the current state of Egypt, and what its future may hold.

What’s Up with Egypt?

By Jay Holmes

Recent events in Egypt have many people wondering what the future of Egypt will be like. In order to make a more informed guess about what’s in store for the Nile River/Suez Canal neighborhood, we need to first look in a direction that does not require a crystal ball, Egypt’s past. Egypt has a long past—about 7000 years long—so we’ll be brief.

In 4500 B.C., before Egyptians knew they were living in what would one day be referred to as “Egypt,” farming communities along the Nile River were turning out pottery that was as sophisticated and artistic as pottery that American Pueblo tribes produced in the twentieth century A.D.

By 4000 B.C. the Egyptians had hierarchical societies along the upper Nile.

Around 3000 B.C. the upper and lower Nile groups became a unified kingdom.

Around 2900 B.C., the prayers of bureaucrats and wannabe novelists were answered by one Egyptian god or another, and papyrus was invented for writing. Some of those early novelists are still waiting for publishers to call them back, but the rest of life in Egypt progressed rapidly, thanks to record keeping and written communications over their vast empire. Egyptian folks then stayed busy with important inventions in medicine, engineering, irrigation, and organizational methods. In the process they built some of the world’s leading tourist attractions in the form of giant pyramids.

In 31 B.C. Egyptian Queen Cleopatra spent too much time in highly fashionable Egyptian beds with an early Roman frat boy type named Marcus Antonius (he of the second Roman Triumvirate). Fellow Roman Triumvirate member, Octavian, caught them sleeping—or whatever they were doing in bed—and defeated the Roman/Egyptian army. Rome began its direct rule of Egypt. (Note to single ladies: Don’t get in bed with guys who have large gambling debts. It will always end badly.)

Having an Italian in charge annoyed a lot of Egyptian taxpayers, just like it annoys a lot of Italian taxpayers today, but Egypt would not have another independent Egyptian ruler for 2000 years. This is critical to understanding the dynamics of Egypt today.

In 641 A.D., Muslim Arabs conquered Egypt. Various Muslim factions, including Mamluks, Baybars, and Ottomans, vied for control of Egypt until a particularly rude tourist from France by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte showed up in 1798. In 1801, due to pressure by various Islamic groups and the British Navy, the French left Egypt. They stole hotel towels on the way out and failed to pay the bill.

After a series of aggravating Turkish and British interventions, Egypt finally gained its independence from England. In 1956, Gamal Nasser became President of Egypt and nationalized the British-built Suez Canal. He was the first truly independent Egyptian ruler of Egypt since Queen Cleopatra.

Egypt then involved itself in several “Arab coalition” wars against Israel until 1979, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Peace Accord and recognized Israel as a state. This ended Egypt’s troubles with Israel, but left Egypt somewhat isolated from other Islamic nations in the region. To make the new Egyptian isolation tolerable for Sadat, the United States agreed to huge economic and military support for Egypt.

When Sadat was murdered by Iranian-backed Islamic terrorists in 1981, a committee selected Vice President Hosni Mubarak to serve as the president. Mubarak was one of the most educated and well-trained generals of the Egyptian Military. In military terms, Mubarak was no lightweight. He attended the Egyptian Military Academy, the Egyptian Air Force Academy, and the Frunze Military Academy in the old USSR.

From what we know from old Soviet files, the Soviets considered Mubarak to be one of the very best and brightest of Egypt. He was a skilled jet pilot and a bright staff officer. He was a sort of “Egyptian Buck Rogers” from the Soviet point of view.

Mubarak rose quickly to the head of the Egyptian Air Force. Nearly everyone either agrees or assumes that Mubarak began amassing incredible wealth during his time as a senior air force officer in charge of contracts. Estimates of Mubarak’s personal family wealth range from 25 billion to upwards of 70 billion $US. He was obviously very skilled at popular table games such as Kickbacks and Pie-slicing.

If we accept the bottom figure of $25 billion as fact, then we are talking about 5% of the Egyptian GNP. This figure, alone, is enough to indicate a huge negative effect on the Egyptian economy. Now, remember this about any leader of any criminal enterprise. They are not the only ones taking money. Assistant goons tolerate submission to a head goon because they are allowed some slice of the pie.

When we consider the size of the pie in Egypt, and the number of slices being removed, we cannot know or even estimate the actual total numbers, but it is not hard to understand the ongoing disaster that we call the Egyptian economy. That economy leaves the average working class Egyptian with a miserable standard of living.

Some people claim that Mubarak is an American puppet, but if the U.S.A. had ever been able to control him, it never would have tolerated his double-dealing, backstabbing behavior. When we combine that low standard of living with the fact that Egyptians have lived under a “state of emergency” throughout all but 18 months of  Mubarak’s pharaonic dynasty, the motive for rebellion is not too hard to understand. What is a bit harder to understand is …

The Future.

Why do “we” care? Well, not all of “we” would agree about anything in the Mideast, but some important features of Egypt are the Suez Canal (more important to Europe than to the USA), the Nile and its influence in Mideast food production, and, of course, Egypt’s border with Israel. The next person that controls Egypt controls all of that and a large, modern air force, a Navy that includes eight Harpoon Missile armed, deep-sea capable ships, and an army that is armed with Abrams tanks and lots of other expensive and lethal equipment.

Some of the key external forces to consider are Iranian imperialist dreams and the giant check that US taxpayers send to Egypt every day. Though any favorable outcomes will later be claimed as their doing (after the fact) by Israel and European governments, neither Israel nor Europe are in a position to greatly impact the political future of Egypt. Syria and a variety of “Palestinian” groups would like to think that they can influence the future of Egypt, and they, too, might later claim to have done so.

In reality, though, the future will be decided by the Egyptian military junta, whose ideology is something like “we don’t know how to run this show but anyone else will run it worse,” along with the Egyptian people, who are enjoying saying words like “democracy” and “freedom” but have little personal experience with either. Though Egyptians might not all have a clear idea of what democracy means to them, it likely includes being able to eat, and not being abused by a police state.

For the moment, the same military clique that put Mubarak in power and kept him in power is in charge. This is, for the most part, good news for Joe and Susie Egyptian. Several, less pleasant alternatives were available ranging from strong-arm VP Omar Suleiman to various Sharia Law-wielding dictator wannabes.

One very populous group in Egypt is The Muslim Brotherhood. It is not your average Knights of Columbus religious men’s club. For one thing, their membership is philosophically diverse. Their members range from altruistic people concentrating on charity and social work to radicals that want Sharia Law for Egypt. A few of their more radical members dream of Sharia Law for the entire planet, and these members are, from our point of view, the most dangerous.

The average Muslim Brotherhood member is not dreaming of a new world Islamic caliphate, but their moderation may or may not matter in any political takeover. Though everyone would like the C.I.A. to read all the tarot cards and predict this group’s future actions, the fact is that this group cannot predict itself. Internal power struggles will have to play out. Whether or not the Brotherhood can turn “popular” into “powerful and in charge” remains to be seen.

Symbol for The Muslim Brotherhood

The Iranian government views the crisis in Egypt as a possible opportunity. They have done their best to co-opt the Muslim Brotherhood, but so far they do not quite seem to be able to pull the strings in Cairo, despite their best efforts. For Egyptians and for everyone else, let’s hope that Iran does not gain decisive influence in creating the next Egyptian Pharaoh.

Against that very tempting and vague opportunity to control all that is Egypt, Iran has to worry about the image of a popular rebellion taking down a well-armed goon backed by an efficient and ruthless secret police. The fact that Mubarak could fall in spite of all his power and control is not a happy event to the Islamic Shiite thugs that run Iran. On the one hand, they are doing all they can to take advantage of the power vacuum in Egypt. On the other hand, they are double checking with their approximately 17 secret police organizations to make sure that none of the “grateful and loyal, happy, devout Iranian followers” gets any ideas about things like human rights or freedom, or other highly objectionable, traditional Western ideas.

If an Iranian lookalike gang should come to power in Egypt, the US military will suggest “surgical strikes” to eliminate critical, lethal hardware from Egypt’s inventory. The current US administration will likely refuse to make any decision regarding strikes, one way or the other, and will simply occupy itself with “the C.I.A. failed us” press releases. The opposition party in the US will then spend their time on a campaign titled That Creep Lost Egypt, as if it was ever ours to lose.

The fantasy option is a freedom-loving, democratic leader who will somehow manage to introduce a high degree of freedom while keeping all the Islamic caliphate wannabes and lurking dictators under control as he/she eradicates rampant corruption from daily Egyptian life. This fantasy leader would create jobs and eliminate crime while improving healthcare for Egyptians. It’s fun to dream.

My guess (based on my crystal ball, which runs on energy generated by my bad attitude) is that the military junta will try to present something like a believable reformist. If the new reformist dictator manages to steal significantly less, and is able to lift the state of emergency in Egypt, things might improve enough to keep Egypt from being taken over by Sharia gangsters. Any new leader in Egypt will either have to spend less time amassing fortunes and more time using the Egyptian government for something new…say, something like “government”… or they will have to go in a less attractive direction by becoming more despotic in order to control the population.

I hope that some form of progress can come to Egypt, and that eighty-three million Egyptian people can get back to spending their time developing a modern society with all its great inventions and benefits. The history of Egypt indicates that Egyptians are capable of a great future. They deserve one, and I hope they get one.