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World roundup: November 11 2021
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Belarus, and more
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Happy Veterans/Armistice Day!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
November 10, 1444: The Battle of Varna
November 10, 1659: The Maratha leader Shivaji and his outnumbered army defeat the Adilshahi under Afzal Khan at the Battle of Pratapgarh. It was the first major victory Shivaji would win over a Muslim kingdom, but it would definitely not be the last. His kingdom grew rapidly in the wake of the battle and became the nucleus of the Maratha Empire, which subjugated the Mughal Empire in the middle of the 18th century and became India’s dominant political entity until it was defeated by the British East India Company in the early 19th century.
November 11, 1918: Marshal Józef Piłsudski becomes head of state for the first Polish state to have existed since Austria, Prussia, and Russia carved up the previous one in the “Third Partition” in 1795. The German and Austrian governments had formed a Polish Regency Council the previous year, and with Germany defeated, Austria-Hungary defeated and disintegrating, and Russia in chaos following its 1917 revolution, the council availed itself of the opportunity to declare independence in October 1918. But it’s Piłsudski’s appointment that’s considered the start of the modern Polish state and it’s therefore this date that’s commemorated every year as Polish Independence Day.
November 11, 2004: PLO leader and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat dies of still undetermined causes. Arafat’s death left the PA in the less capable hands of Mahmoud Abbas, though it’s hard to see how things could have turned out much differently in Israel-Palestine had he lived.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office is estimating that the number of displaced persons around the world rose past 84 million in the first half of this year, as compared with 82.4 million at the end of last year. Conflicts across Asia and Africa are primarily to blame for the increase. The UN has classified 20.8 million refugees, but there are no comparable statistics on internally displaced persons so that’s why there’s some uncertainty built into these figures.
Saudi forces in Yemen have left a major military base in Aden, raising speculation of a withdrawal from Yemen altogether. The spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition, General Turki al-Malki, told Reuters on Wednesday that such speculation is “baseless and unfounded,” insisting that the Saudi forces were only redeploying, not withdrawing. The redeployment/withdrawal/whatever comes amid a new flurry of mostly Western diplomacy aimed at bringing the Yemen conflict to an end, so it could be worth watching.
The Associated Press is reporting that Israeli authorities have been using the NSO Group’s Pegasus software to spy on Palestinian officials. This revelation follows another AP report earlier this week that the Israeli government has used Pegasus to spy on Palestinian activists as well. I don’t think it comes as a huge surprise to find out that the Israeli government is spying on prominent members of the Palestinian government and civil society groups, but these new reports could add to international pressure on NSO, which earlier this month found itself in the somewhat astonishing position of being an Israeli company placed under US sanctions.
According to The Intercept’s Ryan Grim and Ken Klippenstein, the Biden administration believes that Saudi Arabia is refusing to ramp up oil production because of a political vendetta:
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is enacting revenge on Democrats in general and President Joe Biden specifically for the party’s increasingly standoffish attitude toward the kingdom — by driving up energy prices and fueling global inflation.
Biden himself seemed to allude to this at a town hall event with CNN last month, during which he attributed high gas prices to a certain “foreign policy initiative” of his, adding, “There’s a lot of Middle Eastern folks who want to talk to me. I’m not sure I’m going to talk to them.”
Biden was making a not-so-veiled reference to his refusal to meet with Salman and acknowledge him as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler due to his role in the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October of 2018. The move came after Biden vowed during a debate with President Donald Trump to make MBS, as he’s known, “a pariah” and represented a stark departure from Trump’s warm relations with the desert kingdom and the crown prince.
I think the circumstantial case for their claim here is fairly strong but I think they may be overstating things somewhat. The Saudis are keeping production down, they’re pretty open about that. But they have a lot of reasons for doing so, including concern about flooding the market and causing a crash in oil prices. They’re also operating under an OPEC+ framework that was difficult to negotiate and would likely be even more difficult to renegotiate.
Punishing Biden for a perceived insult (his administration hasn’t really changed anything about the US-Saudi relationship other than rhetoric) is certainly in keeping with MBS’s personality. And it’s convenient for Biden to scapegoat MBS for high gas prices so I’m not surprised to see his administration pushing this narrative. In fairness that may well be part of what’s motivating the prince to keep production low. But I would say only part.
The International Organization for Migration reported on Thursday that the Iranian and Pakistani governments have turned an estimated 1 million Afghan refugees back this year. Some of these are people who recently left the country because of…well, presumably you know the story by now. But these returnees also apparently include people who fled Afghanistan years ago and had established lives in their new residences. At a time when the Afghan economy can’t even support the people who are living there now, forcing these people to return is heaping misery upon misery. It also arguably violates international law prohibiting refoulement, or returning refugees to places that are not suitable for their return.
Pakistani authorities have removed Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan leader Saad Rizvi from their terrorism list, which likely means he’ll be getting out of jail any minute now. Rizvi’s freedom was almost certainly part of the deal Pakistani officials made with TLP leaders to end the group’s protest march last month. The TLP has in return reportedly agreed to stop demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador from Islamabad and to take up a less violent form of politics.
As expected, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee adopted a new historical resolution on Thursday that puts President Xi Jinping on par with past leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. In establishing himself as a great historical figure, Xi likely removes any possibility of a challenge to his reelection to third terms as party leader (next year) and president (in 2023).
Sudanese junta leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan on Thursday named a new “transitional” executive council that looks a little like the council he dissolved in the wake of last month’s coup. All the military members you loved from the old council are back. So that’s nice, familiar faces and all. As for the civilian members, many of them had to go, seeing as how the whole point of that coup was to expunge the civilian portion of the transitional government. The new civilians are drawn not from the main opposition group, the Forces for Freedom and Change, but from a pool of other candidates presumably more amenable to military rule. Burhan’s move here probably puts an end to the international community’s hopes that former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok might be restored to his old gig and that everybody would just agree to forget the whole coup thing and move on.
There seems to be a little good news coming out of Libya, where Reuters is reporting that “Libyan National Army” will repatriate 300 of the foreign mercenaries who fought alongside it during the civil war. This would be the first verified group of mercs to leave Libya since last year’s ceasefire/political transition went into effect, even though “getting rid of the foreign fighters” was technically one of the first items on the transitional to-do list. The identity of these 300 is unclear—the LNA hired Russian Wagner Group mercs but it also employed foreign fighters from elsewhere, in particular Chad and Sudan.
The ongoing dispute over the flow of migrants from Belarus toward the borders of European Union members Lithuania and Poland became the focus of its very own UN Security Council spat on Thursday, with Russia representing Minsk’s interests against a group of Council members including the US, UK, and France. The UNSC won’t take any action against Belarus because any move in that direction would surely trigger a Russian veto, but the EU may impose sanctions against Minsk’s airport, which serves as the main point of entry for migrants coming to Belarus in hopes of transiting on foot from there. These measures could impact airport operations and/or the use of European aircraft by Belarus’s Belavia airline. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has apparently threatened to shut off pipelines carrying Russian natural gas through Belarus and on into the EU, which is a decision he would have to take only with the assent of the Russian government, which would lose revenue as a result. Consequently I’m not sure how serious a threat it really is.
While everybody feuds over the migrants nobody really seems to be paying any attention to them. For what it’s worth, people who have attempted the crossing from Belarus into one of its neighbors say they’re being treated brutally by authorities in Belarus and in the countries they’re trying to enter. At Foreign Policy, journalist Andrew Connelly argues that there’s plenty of blame to go around:
“This is a hybrid attack,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen asserted on Twitter on Nov. 10, referring to the thousands of migrants escorted to Poland’s border by the Belarusian regime. “Not a migration crisis.”
It is of course both. But European Union leaders’ refusal to recognize this reality is partly why the EU is facing such chaos.
Six years after the height of Europe’s last refugee crisis, adults and children from warzones and failed states are still squeezed between troops and razor wire asking to be let in. Their appearance on the bloc’s eastern border has been facilitated and coordinated by the security apparatus of Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, who is reeling from EU sanctions against him for gross human rights violations against his own people. But the EU’s panic-stricken, warlike approach to a manageable migration problem is precisely what makes its dysfunctional system so ripe for exploitation by hostile actors.
Although it is true that the Belarusian regime is in league with predatory smugglers who convince desperate Iraqi families to liquidate their assets and make the doomed journey to the forests of eastern Europe, the background of these people is seldom mentioned. Lukashenko does not care about their protection or the roots of their displacement, but Europe should. Instead, the EU’s obsessive focus on militarizing a humanitarian issue and eroding the concept of asylum is squandering the principles that are supposed to differentiate it from the bad guys.
Deputy Russian UN ambassador Dmitry Polyansky told reporters on Thursday that Russia is “never going to” invade Ukraine (other than the time it did, I guess)—unless, of course, it’s provoked. The Biden administration continues to sound the alarm over an alleged buildup of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border. It sent CIA Director Bill Burns to Russia last week to convey the sentiment that Washington would prefer Russia not invade Ukraine again, but according to Diplomatic’s Laura Rozen the sense is that the Russians either didn’t get Burns’ point or they got it and don’t really care. She interviewed Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analysis, who believes Moscow has lost interest in the Minsk peace process and is concerned over perceived closer military ties between Ukraine and the West. Still, he doesn’t believe the Russians are planning some imminent invasion.
Two more polls suggest dysfunction ahead for a Bulgarian political system that’s about to endure its third election this year. The surveys, from Alpha Research and Gallup International, have the conservative GERB party leading the field with somewhere around 24 percent support ahead of Sunday’s vote, nowhere near enough for a sole majority. Part of the reason Bulgaria is on its third election this year is because none of the country’s other major parties have shown any willingness to enter coalition with GERB, which has been discredited on corruption grounds. But they haven’t been able to agree on a coalition without GERB either. A new entrant in the field, the centrist/anti-corruption “We Are the Change” party, and the Bulgarian Socialist Party are running second and third.
As you might imagine, Bulgarian voters appear to be very tired of voting in snap elections because their party leaders can’t seem to figure out how to govern. So there should be a hefty amount of pressure on the parties this time around to work out a coalition and avoid a fourth election.
Riksdag Speaker Andreas Norlén tasked current Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson with forming a new government on Thursday, giving her first crack to replace outgoing Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. Andersson replaced Löfven as leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party last week and would be the first woman to serve as PM in Swedish history. She’s likely to earn enough parliamentary support to become PM, though it’s not a total certainty.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and his cabinet tendered their resignations on Thursday, which is a formality following last month’s election and the seating of a new parliament. In this case, though, Babiš really is on his way out, with a new coalition led by Civic Democratic Party boss Petr Fiala set to replace his government after winning a collective parliamentary majority. President Miloš Zeman remains out of commission with an unspecified health issue, but when his condition has improved he’s already said he’s prepared to designate Fiala as PM.
Finally, this isn’t strictly US-related but it seems the pandemic’s temporary reduction in carbon emissions has to be balanced against its massive surge in plastic pollution:
Some 8 million metric tons of pandemic-related plastic waste has been created by 193 countries, about 26,000 tons of which is now in the world’s oceans, where it threatens to disrupt marine life and further pollute beaches, a recent study found.
The findings, by a group of researchers based in China and the United States, were published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. Concerns had been raised since the start of the coronavirus pandemic that there would be a boom in plastic pollution amid heightened use of personal protective equipment and rapid growth in online commerce. The study is among the first to quantify the scale of plastic waste linked to the health crisis.
The impact of the increase in plastic waste has been keenly felt by wildlife. As of July, there were 61 recorded instances of animals being killed or disrupted by pandemic-linked plastic waste, according to a Dutch scientist-founded tracking project. Among the widely publicized examples are an American robin found wrapped in a face mask in Canada and the body of a perch wrapped in the thumb of a disposable medical glove, which was found by Dutch volunteers. National Geographic called the latter the first documented instance of a fish being killed by a disposable glove.
Most of this extra plastic waste came from Asia, through a combination of high usage of disposible protective gear and low levels of waste treatment.