Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Jordanian visit at NATO Headquarters

The relationships between NATO and the Middle Eastern countries are part of the old history of the organization and an episode still to be written from the history of the Cold War. Through decades, the Alliance developed from a military arm of Western democracy, to an organization ready to intervene where the democracy was in danger, regardless of the geographical localization. There is a lot to be discussed about how difficult is sometimes to take decisions and to move forward from the idea of democratic support to the bureaucratic limitations, but it is relatively clear that as long as there are minimal democratic standards accomplished, any Middle Eastern country is welcomed to join the efforts of the Alliance. It will be another question to ask how many countries from the region will qualify, but this is not the kind of post I am willing to write now. 

My focus is rather on a news I've read a couple of days ago, regarding the visit of the Jordanian MFA, Nasser Jude, at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels. No photo opportunities and declarations after, but most probably the main point on the agenda was the serious situation in Syria. The relations between NATO and Jordan are very diverse, and the bilateral visits are a regular encounter. As one of the last 'normal' countries with an open door to Damascus left in the area, Jordan can offer an accurate view on the latest evolutions in Syria, as well as a good feedback for who's who and the latest evolutions. Most probably, they have as well reliable connections in Moscow too. The ingredients of a perfect partnership. 

Save Mali

The problems of Islamist extremism are not new, but we, in the West, we ignore to understand it, as we include them in the very generous category of 'nothing new under the fighting sun of Africa'. However, as in the case of the insidous expansion of the terrorist network in many Western cities, the presence of Al Qaida's affiliates in Africa is a new danger against normality.

Especially in those countries lacking a proper democratic prospect, Al Qaida terrorism, in strong collaboration with the networks of drug traffickers and money laundering, can easily win the war. And the success will mean the increase of underdevelopment of the African continent.

The latest serious example in this direction is the case of Mali, where the terrorists are taking the advantage of permeating borders with Libya and relative poverty of the population. Those reunited in the Jihad in Western Africa, Ansar Dine or the Movement for Unity are trying to get more jihadist support and expand their territory. At the end of November, they got the control of a couple of towns and little villages, and increased their activities of kidnapping foreigners and threatening Western businesses. The requests for 'Touareg independence' are another name for the setting up of jihad-driven cities, where there is no respect for humanity, women and historic heritage. 

There are not too many chances of a military intervention in the near future, even though France - whose citizens are often kidnapped in Mali - is interested in finding a proper solution to the current crisis, that started in March. 

Quo vadis, South Africa?

For my Western mind, South Africa is a place where you can enjoy significantly more safety than in most of the African countries, with a relatively high economic level. I know quite successful people working and living there, despite some serious worries regarding some risks for the foreigners, especially at the outskirts of big towns. 

Most probably, I am too much influenced by the colorful presentations from the tourist booklets, otherwise how can I read the latest declarations of the current president Jacob Zuma, reelected in the second half of December as president of the African National Congress.

He is considering himself an inspirational leader and outlines often his pride of having many wives - whose expenses are paid by the state - and concubines; he warns his people that they should not follow the illusions of the Western cultures, even though he will not refuse the pleasure of a nice looking expensive suit; he called for a 'national cleansing ceremony, lead by archibishop emeritus Demond Tutu' - whose anti-semitic stances aren't a secret -, as a way to restore the 'South African moral compass' following the increase of the number of crisis and the miners conflicts. Last but not least, he warned his fellows South Africans, to give up this 'white' custom of walking their dog, and warned, during his first public speech after the reelection, in his Zulu area that: 'Even if you apply any kind of lotion and straighten your hair, you will never be white'. Just to confirm that ridiculosity does not have any limit, officials of the government tried to bring some 'light' into the declarations regarding dog ownership.

Jokes put aside, there are some worrying signs into the South African politics, that continue to be divided and unclear, at the end of the apartheid regime. As in some unhappy Latin American cases, the full independence was not followed by a full ownership of real politics and the corruption and doubtful leadership hijacked the society. Racism and dangerous extremism are the recipes for short time political success and long time destruction of the basis of the societies. In those parts of the world, the leaders are talking often about 'decolonisation' but they fail to offer any alternative focused on the future instead of deepening the scars of the past. 

Most probably, a new and young leadership in South Africa, whose representaitves were preferably born after the 70s, would bring a dramatic change of perspective: less show more politics.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Geopolitics of Shale

The Geopolitics of Shale, an interesting Stratfor analysis, outlining the importance of considering the natural resources as part of any foreign affairs evaluations.

The best of Foreign Affairs

It is the time of evaluations and looking back at what 2012 meant in terms of foreign affairs. I will continue with a couple of reviews and my own evaluations, but for the moment, I will present the choice of Foreign Affairs, outlining the most challenging articles in the last 12 months. My choice is Why Iran should Get the Bomb, an article that was not probably enough discussed.

From the web collection, my favorite is Game of Thrones as Theory, for the potential of using online game theories for foreign affairs. 

As from the best collection of books on foreign affairs, on my priority list I introduced: Cuban Economic and Social Development, A single roll on the dice, on the US diplomacy in Iran, Worlds of Dissent dealing with the policies during the Cold war and Embers of War, about America far and beyond the Vietnam War. 

"...we would miss the typical British sense of humour"

There were a couple of information and declarations lately regarding the possibility of an EU withdrawal from the Union. Almost 40 years after the UK was received in the EU, the president of the European Council tries to explain why the British monarchy should continue being part of the Union.

Most probably, we will not see soon an EU without the UK, but on the other hand, the EU as such should be changed and this may be one of the biggest challenges of 2013 for Europe.

A bad year for journalism

2012 was not a good year for journalism and the supporters of the media freedom and netizens.

Looking in depth at the latest RsF report, it looks as the situation worsened in many respects in comparison with the previous years. According to the declarations of the organizations' officials, it looks as the worst year since 1995.

In comparison with the previous year, 88 journalists were killed, an increased of 33%. 879 were arrested (1044 the previous year), 38 kidnapped (compared with 71 one year before), 73 were forced to flee abroad (77 in 2011). The apparition of netizens meant also a high price in terms of victims: 47 of them were killed this year, especially in Syria and North of Africa.

The most dangerous countries to write are: Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, Mexico and Brazil. Using the power of work here could be often faced by the power of guns. The five biggest prisons for journalists are located in Turkey, China, Eritrea, Iran and Syria.

What's next? The journalists will continue to write while the oppressive governments will continue to do their oppressive jobs as long as there will be not enough international pressures to make them stop. This is the never ending story of human evolution, isn't it?

The latest news about the freedom of the media is the hard time of journalists in Italy, where the representatives of a newspaper in Northern Italy were threatened, an occasion for OSCE to urges investigations into threat.

OSCE also asked the Turkish authorities to take the necessary steps in order to curb the permanent threats against the journalists. In a country close to Turkey, not only geographically, in Azerbaidjan, two journalists and a blogger were released one day ago

Monday, December 17, 2012

On Maps and foreign affairs

When you try to explain in writing complicate international and national stories, words are never enough. Especially when you must explain the history of thousand of years. Thanks to the modern technologies, you can better organize your words in a visual and very suggestive way.

The maps are one of the most useful tool even though you can start more than one war if your map is not as accurate as it is expected by one or the other part involved in the conflict.

Visual graphics, and slides are also improtant for explaining in a couple of key words what it is an issue about. You can show the connections between historical periods, the reccurence of certain topics, the connection between different personalities and even different level of family closeness. 

The literary souls will complain that in the era of Internet, everything is oversimplified and is lacking the proper wording. The simple soul of a journalist will suggest that, at least when it comes to foreign affairs, you rather use the right word instead of too many words. Otherwise, you need histories of histories to find the right solution to neverending conflicts. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Who's who in the Syrian opposition

Soon, there will be two years since Syria entered the gallery of killing fields in the Middle East. With at least 40,000 victims and the spectre of the chemical war, it was about time for the West to encourage further progress and to get ready for an eventual power take-off. 

A couple of days ago, before the forth meeting of the 'Friends of the Syrian People' (sounds very Cold War style, but I prefer to refrain my comments on that), that took place in Marrakesch, Morocco, under the high patronage of the King. This forum was an idea of the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy - who made a difference as well in the approach of the Libyan crisis. In 2012, the group met three times besides Morocco, in Tunis (February), Istanbul (April), Paris (July). Over 130 countries and NGOs are part of this informal body.

Weeks after the EU support, the US granted his recognition to the Syrian National Coalition, led by sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib. Geologist by profession, he has a Sunni background. He is the son of the sheikh Mohammed Abu al-Faraj al-Khatib, a preacher and Moaz himself used to be imam at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Even though he is considered 'moderate', his discourses do have anti-Western and anti-Semitic turns. Al-Khatib was imprisoned several times for his political options and started to operate underground from the time of Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current Syrian president. He fled to Cairo recently and most probably he has some good connections in Egypt that allowed him to spend some good time there and eventually to create some future political alliances - with the Brothers, why not. Sure thing is that at least once al-Khatib recommended if not pledged directly for a softer stance towards al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate involved in the fights around Aleppo. Due to such ambiguities, common to many 'revolutionary' movements in the area, the US and their allies refrained to offer openly a military support to any military group. They offered instead a lot of food support and sent organizations to document the human right abuses. On the other end of the world, the club of the former allies of Moscow are working hard to secure their presence in the area, with any possible means.

The fightings and the confusion are continuing in the region.

Hopes for Nigeria

I have very often the occasion to meet or talk with professionals from Nigeria and I am always impressed about the coherent opinions, the knowledge and the enthusiasm when it comes to the future of the country - both political, social and economic. More than in any other African country, the young generation is ready to make themselves a future in the country.

However, for the cautious European investors, there are thousands of reasons to be very careful, at least for the moment. There are a lot of changes underway nowadays and the overall climate improved significantly since 1999, but the safety risks continue to be high, for both locals and foreigners. The transportation within the country is complicated and dangerous as the costs for building roads are high and the temptation for corrupt officials is high (see various cases in Central and Eastern Europe for understanding how tempting is this honey trap for anyone in an official position). One may not receive nowadays as many Nigerian scam letters but the banking system is still fragile and the accusations of corruption went to another new and sophisticated level

The country is very rich in raw resources - gold and coal as well as oil -, that can be purchased at a very cheap price, but without infrastructure most exchanges are diminished. There are many Western companies aiming to build port facilities and to help the local flight operators to improve the technical training of those working in the airports across the counrty (Lufthansa among others) but their activities are quite limited for the same reasons listed above. One of the most successful domain by far is represented by the telecom industry, with an impressive potential in various other industries. The energy sector is a good opportunity for European companies to invest their money and transfer their knowledge, but the further plans depend at a great extent to the political stability and the transparent governance. 

As many other African countries, Nigeria has its own potential for hope and prosperity. Compared with the former transition countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the African countries do not have the chance of getting substantial support for reaching faster the average criteria of EU and NATO membership - not a guarantee for becoming accomplished democracies anyway. It may be a potential though for becoming the owners of their own reforms and fully aware of the importance of democratic processes. It may take longer but it is possible to have a dramatic separation from the past. Being the own author of your history is not easy at all.  

Water for Zanzibar

We, in the West, we forget very often how important the water is and how dangerous is to be out of enough water resources. Without enough water, you may expect wars, epidemics and social unrest. Africa is more exposed to such problems and somehow it is a long topic of deep meditation how it is possible to have so many 'natural' resources, as gold and oil and gas but lack completely the most important one, mainly the water.

Many of us may have heard about the beautiful Zanzibar, but we maybe miss the basic information that only 50% of Tanzania's population has access to affordable drinking water resources. The water suplies from Zanzibar, for instance, reaches only into urban areas. The water rich in impurities and the frequent breakdowns are the rule of the day. The water is brought from the mainland over long distances. There it is also the option of getting the proper supplies by water trucks, but one cannot afford such luxury without stable income. When it comes to the population living in the rural areas, the drinking water is accessed from problematic sources, mostly contaminated rivers. This explains the high rate of infant mortality, due to the widespread incidence of typhoid fevers and various diarrheal diseases. 

There were some small projects developed lately in the area, many if them desalination plants operating on solar and wind power implemented by various German companies. Some of them are already operating in India and Bangladesh and were supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). 

The desalination plant can be easily be operated by the local community with the proper know-how transfer. It can produce around 100 liters of clean, potable water per hour. The average operating time per day is of 12 hours. A basic calculation leads to the conclusion that it will be possible to answer the daily needs in terms of water for around 500 persons. 

Most of the projects are based in Zanzibar given the market potential of this location for further business on the African market. The immediate interest for desalination projects was shown by public authorities, hotels and NGOs. On the medium and long term, various businesses and green tourism initiatives may be encouraged to expand their portfolio of activities here. It may represent equally an incentive for German companies to further expand their activities in Africa and to counter the Chinese influence with serious and viable products. There are enough state funds and partnership opportunities available and thus, all what the German companies need is the proper information and inspiration to draft their projects and find the right partners

Monday, December 10, 2012

Election Guru

As a person interested in following the latest events on the diplomatic front, I find difficult sometimes to get the updates about the schedule of incoming elections. This is also because I am not interested only in the big fish, like the US or Germany, whose fate is of high interest for anyone that dare to call him/herself an observer of politics.

For people like me and for anyone ready to bet for politicians, some enthusiastic young entrepreneurs created the Election Guru - 'a new prediction game for real news junkies'. It is a free iOS application that invites you to bet for the person that you think that most likely will be the next president or prime minister. You place your bet and if you were right, you won a point - this is all you got for the moment, but the app is less than one year old and thus, many surprises might be offered for the good minds soon. 

The Election Guru is for the moment available only as an iPhone application. They can be found on Facebook as well, where besides opinion polls, you can have several election news. A lot of information presented in a very entertaining way aiming to reach not only the big players and serious people for whom politics is part of the daily life, but to increase the interest among young people not always keen to have a clear political involvement.

Looking forward to the next technical improvements of the app!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Different realities and the international aid

I participated recently at an interesting discussion about some of the Western projects developed in far-away part of the world, many of them included in the category of 'sustainable development'. In the last decades, there are many important supporters of such developments, mainly from countries interested in creating their own local networks of access to rich natural resources. On the other hand, China is for a long time already there and even though it is not more efficient that, let's say, Germany, it moves faster and less bureaucratically.

However, going beyond the paradigm of 'who's the first to discover the oil field', many of the 'big' investors in Africa or Latin America are faced with the same problem. They may think too big compared with the local realities. For instance, one would be keen in providing access to mobile communications in Nigeria, but why one may need mobile phones when you don't have current water to wash your hands or drink. It may be helpful to use the cell phone to call an ambulance when some severe maladies are out of control, but 1. there are no ambulances around and 2. even if there are, the village is too far away and impossible to reach in the rainy season. 

Add to this an aspect that was not mentioned at this discussion, but which is permeating the experience of the Western investors in areas far away of the EU borders: corruption - that flourishes in many EU countries as well - but that is endemic in Africa, often with the benevolent help of the rich Westerners. 

Still, I don't think that the race is lost for ever, but I hope that within the next decade, the small and medium-sized entreprises with economic interests in those areas will claim for a significant change and will turn themselves into engines for a sustainable change. 

What about replacing 'sustainable development' with 'sustainable change'?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Women in power

I do not believe that in the last 12 month a 'revolution' took place in the Middle East. It is rather a change of guard within the same paradigm of unreformed mentalities. It is a lot to be done and at least the current generation is damned to deal with the big fight of countering toxic ways of thinking. In many situations, blame the old Cold War for most of the mess.

I do not agree with many of the ideas of the women interviewed here, as I am fully against using violent and ideologically imbued terms such as 'intifada' and 'occupation'. I know that if I will start a discussion with any of them on issues related to the current state of mind in the Middle East, our ways are different.

But I admire their bravery and courage and genuine lonely fight against a system. If they will be successful, the aggressive Islam will be out of picture and, on the medium and long term, we might expect a diminishing of the violence. These women will not agree with the Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, as many of their 'brothers' men' will easily do it. They know how to defend their right to education, equal pay and equal rights. And I suspect that they will not accept either to blow themselves in a bus because some maniac with balaclava told them to do so.