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World roundup: January 15-16 2022
Stories from Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Serbia, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 14, 1761: Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Durrani defeats the emerging Maratha Confederation in the Third Battle of Panipat and briefly keeps it from subjugating the remnants of the Mughal Empire.
January 14, 2011: Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigns after over 23 years in power and almost a month of protests. Ben Ali’s resignation marked the successful conclusion of the Tunisian Revolution (this date is annually commemorated as “Revolution and Youth Day” in Tunisia) and the first major victory of the Arab Spring movement. It helped spark and motivate similar movements in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere, though none of those worked out quite as successfully.
January 15, 1892: While working at Springfield College (then the “International YMCA College”), James Naismith publishes the rules of a game he’d recently invented in the campus newspaper under the very apt headline “A New Game.” The basic idea of his new game involved throwing a ball through a basket set several feet off the floor, hence its name, “basket ball.” I’m not sure what became of it but it sounds like fun.
January 15, 1967: The Green Bay Packers defeat the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10, in Super Bowl I. Believe it or not this tradition has continued and the National Football League plays one of these “Super Bowls” every year. Who knew, right?
January 16, 929: Abd al-Rahman III declares that his Emirate of Córdoba will henceforth be the Caliphate of Córdoba. This promotion in title did nothing to materially change the conditions of Umayyad rule in Andalus, and the Umayyads had no pretension of ruling the entire Islamic world. The new title was instead meant simply to upgrade Abd al-Rahman’s international stature. At the time Córdoba was facing the possibility of an invasion by the Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa, and if that invasion came Abd al-Rahman thought it would be better to meet the Fatimids caliph to caliph, as it were.
January 16, 1547: Grand Duke Ivan IV of Moscow, also known as “Ivan the Terrible,” has himself crowned Tsar of Russia. He wasn’t the first to use the title “tsar,” as his grandfather Ivan III had done so at least informally, but like Abd al-Rahman III’s decision to make himself caliph this formal move raised Ivan’s international stature to put him on par with, for example, Mongol khans and the Ottoman sultan. It also, as it turns out, had historical significance, as Ivan’s coronation is considered a milestone in Russia’s transition from principality to empire.
January 16, 1979: Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi flees Iran for Egypt at the height of the Iranian Revolution. Realizing that his position was untenable in the face of massive public opposition, the shah cut a deal with opposition leader Shahpour Bakhtiar of the National Front to establish a civilian transitional government and then skedaddled out of town. Unfortunately for Bakhtiar, whose intent was to end the revolution peacefully, the deal tainted him as an agent of the shah in the eyes of the Iranian public, and so his government had no legitimacy from the start.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Yemen’s Houthi/Ansar Allah rebels rejected on Saturday an international demand that they release the UAE-flagged cargo vessel, the Rwabee, that they impounded earlier this month. The United Nations Security Council issued that demand on Friday. The Saudi government insists that it contracted that vessel to transport medical equipment, but the rebels say it was carrying weapons.
A Jordanian army captain was reportedly killed and three other soldiers wounded on Sunday in a shootout with alleged smugglers along the Syrian border. Jordanian authorities say the smugglers fled into Syria and that their border guards confiscated “large quantities of narcotics” following the clash.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly discussing a plea deal with prosecutors that would see him avoid prison time for the various corruption charges he’s facing. Under the deal he would plead guilty on two relatively minor counts, in return for which he’d receive a short prison sentence and a longer suspended prison sentence. That short sentence would then be reduced to community service. Talks are stuck on Israeli Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit’s insistence that Netanyahu also plead guilty to a charge of “moral turpitude,” which could legally bar him from political office for up to seven years.
It’s hard to see how Netanyahu could credibly continue in politics after pleading guilty anyway, but a definite end to his political career could also mean an end to Israel’s ad hoc, anti-Netanyahu governing coalition. That coalition is held together by a commitment to keep Netanyahu from becoming PM again, and if that possibility were no longer on the table there wouldn’t be much reason for the ideologically disparate parties in the coalition to stay together.
According to The Wall Street Journal, US companies that have been enticed to start doing business in Saudi Arabia are finding the business environment in the kingdom a tad off-putting:
Saudi Arabia courted the world’s top companies to modernize its economy. Instead, the business environment has grown more hostile and investors are souring on the oil-rich kingdom.
Uber Technologies Inc., General Electric Co. and other foreign firms were hit by surprise tax assessments often totaling tens of millions of dollars.
Construction company Bechtel Corp. sent some contractors home while it tried to collect on more than $1 billion in unpaid bills.
Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Gilead Sciences Inc. and other drugmakers have complained unsuccessfully for years that their intellectual property was being stolen.
The result is foreign investment in Saudi Arabia has remained stubbornly low and some companies are scaling back their operations or delaying promised expansion plans.
Diversification is at the core of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plans for Saudi Arabia’s post-oil future. His 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi chased some US firms away and these threats to the bottom line are apparently souring several others. In 2020, the last full year for which data is available, the Saudis had sought to attract $19 billion in foreign investment. They actually brought in $5.4 billion. COVID was undoubtedly part of the story, but maybe not all of it.
Kazakh authorities are now saying that at least 225 people were killed during the frequently violent protests that rocked the country earlier this month, which is up from their previous estimate of 50 and the previous unofficial count of 164, and over 4300 were wounded. Police and soldiers account for 19 of those deaths. The circumstances surrounding those deaths are difficult to ascertain, particularly while the government continues to insist that shadowy foreign influences were responsible for the violence while witnesses allege abuses on the part of Kazakh security forces.
Questions are also swirling about the status of former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was the target of much of the protesters’ ire and who seems to have lost most of his remaining authority during the uprising, as current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev maneuvered to consolidate control over the Kazakh security apparatus. Speculation on Nazarbayev’s whereabouts has ranged from “sitting at home in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan” to “dead,” and everything in between (he may be in Dubai, or in China, for example). If Nazarbayev is still in Kazakhstan then it’s likely that whatever sort of power struggle played out behind the scenes earlier this month, if that is in fact what happened, has not entirely run its course.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met in the Chinese city of Wuxi on Friday to kick off the implementation of the two countries’ still largely mysterious “strategic agreement.” Beijing and Tehran negotiated a sweeping 25 year accord last year, but apart from some vague generalities (Iran will sell oil to China, China will invest heavily in Iran, etc.) its terms still remain largely unrevealed.
According to the South Korean military, North Korea carried out yet another missile launch off of its eastern coast on Monday morning. The South Koreans are saying that this test, like Friday’s, involved two projectiles. Beyond that I don’t think very much is known yet. This would be Pyongyang’s fourth weapons test this month involving its fifth and sixth projectiles.
There are indications of train traffic between North Korean and China, suggesting that cross-border commercial traffic is resuming or has resumed after an almost two-year COVID shutdown. North Korea went into an extreme lockdown in 2020, shutting down most of the country’s trade with China. While Pyongyang’s claim of zero COVID cases remains implausible, the country does seem to have weathered the pandemic—though the lockdown itself likely caused substantial economic pain. A reopening of commercial traffic will also open channels for humanitarian relief to enter the country, which could help alleviate some of that pain.
Sudan’s Forces of Freedom of and Change group, which has been one of the prime movers behind the country’s pro-democracy protest movement, has agreed to participate in a UN-led effort to revive the country’s derailed political transition. UN envoy Volker Perthes intends to conduct shuttle diplomacy between Sudan’s ruling junta and civilian opposition groups, with the goal of eventually mediating direct talks between the two sides. Another major protest organizer, the Sudanese Professionals Association, has already ruled out participating in Perthes’ effort.
At least 53 people were killed and many more abducted in another apparent bandit attack in northern Nigeria, this time targeting a village in Kebbi state. The attackers swarmed into the village late Friday, chased off police and military forces, and ransacked the place overnight before leaving Saturday morning.
A suicide bombing wounded Somali government spokesperson Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimuu at his home in Mogadishu on Sunday. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack, which doesn’t seem to have resulted in any casualties apart from Moalimuu and the bomber.
The Ukrainian government says it has evidence connecting Friday’s cyberattack to a hacker group called UNC1151 that has links to Belarusian intelligence, which would at least indirectly link it to Russian intelligence given the security ties between those two countries. Morover, the Ukrainians are claiming that the malware used in that attack can be linked to a group that’s believed to have direct ties to Russian intelligence. The upshot is that Russia was probably involved in the hack, which I don’t think comes as a huge surprise.
Voters in Serbia headed to the polls on Sunday to participate in a referendum on constitutional changes that Belgrade cast as an important step in Serbia’s European Union accession. The changes mostly have to do with the selection of judges and prosecutors and are apparently intended to bring Serbia in line with EU “rule of law” standards. Ethnic Serbs in Kosovo were invited to participate, but were obliged to travel to towns inside Serbia in order to do so after the Kosovan government refused to allow referendum voting to take place on its soil. That in itself is relevant to Serbia’s potential EU membership, since without a resolution to its lengthy dispute with Kosovo it’s unlikely that either country will be allowed into the club.
The polling picture ahead of Portugal’s January 30 snap election is now pretty well established, so stop me if you’ve heard this already: a new survey has Prime Minister António Costa’s Socialist Party leading but falling well short of a majority. The poll, from the firm Aximage, has the Socialists at 38.1 percent, which is up from 34.5 percent in the same poll last month and gives them a roughly 10 point lead over the sinking Social Democrats, well up from the two point lead they held a month ago. But it still falls well shy of a majority of seats in the next parliament. Costa has ruled out an alliance with the Communist Party and the Left Bloc, whose opposition to his 2022 budget forced this snap election, but mathematically he may have no choice but to seek the backing of at least one of those smaller parties in order to get anything done.
The UK Labour Party now holds its biggest polling lead over the ruling Conservative Party in almost a decade, according to a new survey by the pollster Opinium. The results put Labour ahead of the Tories 41-31. The reason, of course, has nothing to do with Labour. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been compiling minor scandals to the point where he’s now less popular than his predecessor, Theresa May, who was so unpopular the Tories ousted her as party leader in favor of Johnson.
Finally, writing for Military.com, my Discontents newsletter partner Kelsey Atherton has a fascinating look at the ties between the US military and Silicon Valley, particularly in the literally life-and-death arena of target recognition:
When the Pentagon asked Google to quietly build a tool that could identify objects in drone footage, what it found was a nascent worker revolt against explicitly building weapons.
The program, Project Maven, was launched in April 2017 with the goal of processing video taken by drones. The plan was to identify and label objects in those videos using computer algorithms, with those labels helpful for troops who would be picking targets.
It presented the possibility that the military could finally process all the thousands of hours of video collected by drones, much of which typically sat unused and unwatched, and then rapidly make life or death decisions relying on trusted computer algorithms.
But in March 2018, Google workers raised internal objections to the company's participation in the project, before coming out with a public letter arguing that Google should not be "[b]uilding this technology to assist the US Government in military surveillance -- and potentially lethal outcomes."
In response to the letter, and the resignations of multiple employees, Google announced it would not renew the contract and published a set of guiding principles for how it would use and develop artificial intelligence, or AI. While Google maintains military contracts to this day, Project Maven hangs over the Pentagon and all of Silicon Valley as a cautionary tale about applying commercial code to military ends.