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Turkish Islamic soft power strategies

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The Turkish foreign policy, as it has been dictated over the past few years, relies heavily in the so-called “Islamic soft-power” strategies that aim to push forward foreign policy interests via the use of Islam-based virtues of charity work and the Islamic ethics in general.

This approach has accelerated since 2007 when AKP political party in Turkey managed to establish firmly itself within the state by winning overwhelmingly its second general elections and since then it has effectively been able to disband numerous Kemalist networks of political and state influence. In terms of foreign policy, AKP places great importance into projecting Turkish interests abroad and especially in the regions of the Balkans, Middle East and Africa through the use of state-sponsored NGO’s, charity foundations and religious organizations.
For example, the original goal behind The Union of NGOs of the Islamic World (UNIW) organization was to perform a new kind of soft-power based foreign policy by the Erdogan’s Administration that aims to enchase Turkey’s role in the globe, by boosting Turkey’s profile as a major Sunni country. In short it plays the card of Sunni Islam, but in contrast to Saudi Arabia in a more moderate fashion, so as to be able to be accepted more easily by the “West” (NATO, EU). In a second level this particular NGO, acts as a hub and forum for the creation of interpersonal relations between a diverse crowd of figures that are involved in politics, business, charity and arts. Thus Turkish diplomacy, as directed by the pro-Erdogan elements- finds itself of new avenues to expand the diplomatic support this country may need for its state purposes. In simple terms, the Turkish foreign policy can “muscle” more supporters for Turkish aims and at the same time being able to grasp in a broader sense the tunes of societal changes in the contemporary globalized world. By having a reach in local societies as far as Seychelles, Indonesia and other countries, Ankara acquires a “global outlook”. In the case of the Balkans this particular organization has considerable reach in Kosovo, FYROM and Albania.
Continuing, there are many advantages of such strategies that blend Islam with foreign policy goals for Turkey.  First of all the building of a “good name” abroad is an expensive process that takes years to be achieved, but once it happens, it provides the country with advantages in issues such as the direction of developmental aid, peace-keeping operations and of course a greater diplomatic clout in the United Nations. The case of Norway is illustrative. A small country of 4.5 million people has managed since the early 70′s to establish a good name for itself in regions such as Africa and South East Asia by providing financing, humanitarian aid and know-how. Thus Oslo has managed to have a reliable international voice and garner diplomatic and political support in international forums, disproportional to its small size as a state. In case of Turkey, a 70 million people country, that connects the Middle East with Southeastern Europe and with obvious ambitions of becoming a regional power; the policy benefits of charity work can be tremendous and as far as the business opportunities are concerned, quite substantial.
However, it should be noted that this use of a “soft-power approach” is not unique in international affairs, and actually it has been a well-established tool for diplomatic services for decades now. There are different sets of powers using soft power approaches. First we have the former colonial powers such as France and UK and to a lesser extent Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Portugal. The aims of these countries stem from their bonds with their former colonies, their commercial interest and their will to have a global voice by cultivating linguistic and political ties with these countries.
Then we have the Scandinavian group (Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark) that are interested traditionally in keeping up a stern image of peace-loving nations and supporters of economic development. Scandinavian countries, due to their highly industrialized and technologically advanced societies, who happen to be small in numbers and in the periphery of the Northern Hemisphere, the main manner under which they can have a political impact is by providing charities to the so-called “Third world”. Also these societies have always yearned to be heard globally due to their historical isolation.
Another category is the countries of Germany and Japan. Due to the WW2 effects and the peculiar state of affairs since, their aim has been traditionally to escape from the past and emerge as nations aiming for global security and peace, through charity work amongst other. USA, Russia and China, is another group that performs charities mostly for the sake of political interests, since they all have global ambitions and are keen and cynic players in the world stage.
Lastly we have the category where Turkey is located along with Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Iran, Gulf States, Brazil, India, and Indonesia. These are all emerging market countries with ambitions of acquiring a regional role or a wider global role based mostly on the religious factor, in the case of Turkey, Sunni Islam of the so-called moderate fashion, along with the “Neo -Ottoman” tendency which is frequently being exported as a role model in the Balkan region.
Somalia is the African country where Turkey seems to have the most high-profile role nowadays. Aside from establishing several aid centers, schools, mosques and other facilities in the country, Turkey has given full scholarships to more than 1,000 Somali students to study at Turkish high schools and universities. There have been quite a few developments in Africa in general since 2007, with Turkish delegations having visited and participated in conference, forums and events in almost all Sub-Saharan African states. Nevertheless, the ambitions of Turkey in that Continent are counterbalanced by the ambitions of global players such as USA, China or the well-established presence of former European colonial powers. Somalia is a country devastated by wars, famines and dissolution of the social fabric, therefore the direction of the Turkish foreign policy it seems was to take advantage of the dire straits the Somalia society is in, so as to be able to gain a “soft-power” base rather easily. Estimations point out those similar moves by Turkey to Africa will be directed in the coming period in Sudan, Angola and Nigeria.
Turkey in Africa a rather new presence in the region and the most important countries involved in similar charity or business projects, have a achieved a long-lasting presence by either investing heavily, as is the case of China, or have committed substantial security guarantees, as is the case with USA which has a military Command for Africa (AFRICOM), that is actually very much involved in “Soft-Power” projects. The interesting fact around Turkey is the pace of activity its diplomatic efforts have been for Africa under Erdogan’s Administration, especially after his second electoral victory in 2007. Before that little attention was paid to Africa by Turkey.
It is assumed that Turkey will continue to pay attention to Somalia in particular, due to the piracy issue, since it offers diplomatic capabilities for Turkey to be involved in international culminations in such an important global security issue.
Almost all countries with either global ambitions of some sort (Political, economic), are all involved in establishing their soft power infrastructure into Africa. In the case of China for instance, this has resulted in bringing Africa closer to Beijing in diplomatic terms and has provided ample business opportunities for both sides. In the case of USA, it has resulted in a virtual political control of a significant area of Africa. In the case of European countries and the EU as a supranational organization, soft power has achieved the notion that Europe is a world mediator and a good-will actor, something that often translates into fruitful corporate and commercial arrangements and occasional diplomatic support in the UN, IMF and World Bank through the votes of the African countries.
In other regions the situation is similar, although fluctuations occur. In Latin America China is creating soft power webs of influence in Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru and increasingly Argentina that result often to business deals. In Southeastern Europe, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have invested billions of Dollars into boosting the presence of Wahhabis, with negative results for the local societies, including terrorism incidents. In June 2012 a lecturer in the Police Academy of FYROM relayed to the local press that Al Qaeda-like training camps exist in his country and further attacks against Christians should be expected.
In Central Asia, Turkey tried in the 90′s especially to reach out to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, with no success due to the opposition by Russia and by the local elites that viewed any external influence as a danger for their survival. Attempts were intensified in these countries also after 2007, but the local governments reacted fiercely by confiscating assets of Turkish NGO’s and companies or prosecuting Turkish citizens involved.
Soft-power strategies in order to be successful needs a lot of available capital, a sophisticated state and non-state mechanism, political will, strategic global outlook, intercultural knowledge and sensitivity by the actors involved and integration of it, to the long-term visions that the prospective country has in mind. Moreover they need a solid cultural and historical base upon which they can reflect to other cultures. Thus, the tendency to use Ottoman Empire as a historical example by the modern Turkish state since it is viewed as the pinnaculum of cultural achievement by Ankara that could be exported as a “cultural best-practice” abroad.
In overall “Soft power, is not just a show of good-will but rather a carefully planned path that leads to the increase of the diplomatic capability of the country in question. Therefore the states that are able to amass all these qualities and abilities, are the ones that eventually are going to see their soft power approaches bear fruits and remain as such for the long-term.
The question that arises is what may happen if all these actors step up from their soft-power antagonism into a harder approach? History has showed that Africa and other regions will pay the price in terms of social unrest, conflicts and destabilization as each actor will try to advance it interests as it is vying for influence and power. The difference between soft and hard power it’s in the means. The ends are the same and it is the acquisition of power, control and wealth. Of course this  a cynic read of international relations, and as in ever social subject, it is only of subjective nature.
Turkish Soft Power in Albania
– On mid-May 2012 the infamous Turkish Islamic NGO “Humanitarian Relief Foundation” (Turkish name: Insan Hak ve Hurriyetleri ve Insani Yardım Vakfı) organized a mass circumcision ceremony in Tirana-Albania for 500 local children. The organization was held with the assistance of the Municipality of Istanbul which is completely under the control of the AKP party. It was a first time since the 1930′s that such a ceremony was performed in Albania and was covered by Turkish media, although the Albanian ones kept a low profile on it. A delegation of Turkish Muftis and Islamic theologists travelled from Istanbul to attend and more than 3,000 locals viewed the ceremony and participated in the afterwards feast.
– The same period in Tirana an international conference on Sufism in the Balkans was organized by the department of Islamic theology of the Turkish “Konya Necmettin Erbakan University”. A delegation also from Istanbul theologists participated and Albanian Sufi representatives attended and expressed their views on how to enlarge this religious Islamic sect in the Balkan region.
– In early May the President of the Albanian Parliament Mrs. Topali during a visit of her Turkish counterpart Cemil Cicek in Tirana expressed her view that the Turkish nation “Has a lot of Albanian blood” and that “Turkey is a more than just a strategic ally to Albania and is a brotherly nation”. Cicek spoke along similar lines by hailing the “Turkish-Albanian brotherhood”.
– During the visit of Cicek who has accompanied by a delegation of Turkish Members of Parliament, a special trip was organized in the city of Shkondra, where tribute was paid to the monument of Hasan Riza Pasha (1871 – 1913) who was a general in the Ottoman Army. He was the son of Namik Pasha, Vali of Baghdad, and he was born in Baghdad. He was one of the commanders during the Siege of Scutari. He was shot dead by Osman Bali and Mehmet Kavaja, two Albanians who were servants of Essad Pasha. In parallel Cicek visited the Turkish cultural center “Junis Emre” that was established there in early 2012.
– This center is part of a wider “Soft-power” cultural centers network being established over the past few years by Turkey in several countries such as Albania, Iran, Jordan, Belgium, Georgia, UK, Japan, Kazakhstan, Cyprus (Occupied North), Kosovo, Lebanon, FYROM, Egypt, Romania, Syria. It is under the influence of the AKP government and can be considered as one of the basic elements of the “Turkish-Islamic soft power web of influence” presently.

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IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya

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With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday. 

Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December. 

They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year. 

At the crossroads 

“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš.  “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.” 

He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.  

Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation. 

Foreign fighter threat 

The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline. 

“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.  

“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.” 

Young voters eager 

The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results. 

He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country. 

So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women.  Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots. 

“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš. 

He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.  

“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned.  “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”

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The Remnants of Civil War: Wanning Stability as Deraa Slips into Mayhem

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The infamous Syrian civil war is etched into history forever. A decade-long conflict that claimed almost half a million lives, razed towns, and displaced millions. While the Arab spring is touted as the flicker of angst that sparked the catastrophe, the Syrian uprising began in the quaint city of Deraa. A southwestern city bordering Jordan, Deraa is widely attributed as the birthplace of the upheaval that upended Syria back in 2011 and onwards. However, while the devastating chaos has since mostly subsided, the city remains the epicenter of insidious instability as rebels maintain a domesticated stronghold despite government resistance. And while a fragile negotiation holds the last flicker of hope for the entrapped civilians, it is not a steady ground yet to expect a haven in the war-wrecked country.

The rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad seized control of Deraa right after the skirmishes turned into conflict before finally escalating into a full-fledged war. Their grip, however, lasted until 2018. With the fall of ISIS and the diffusion of Kurdish fighters to the northern frontier, the Russian-backed regime besieged multiple cities across Syria. The government campaign lasted months as brutal fighting undertook major cities under the control of the rebels. Weeks of fighting eventually led the government forces to overpower the rebels in Aleppo, Deraa, and Idlib. With no alternative, the rebels resorted to surrender. While Moscow brokered a peace agreement, also known as the ‘Reconciliation Accords,’ all was not well – especially in Deraa.

The Russian-backed forces took control of the city and most of the rebels either joined the government forces or handed over heavy weaponry in exchange for a safe exit to government-controlled regions in Syria. However, a few rebels retained control over a slew of areas within the city. With the help of influence within the forces of the regime, the rebels managed to hook control of the southern half of the city; which eventually became known as the eponymous district of Deraa al-Balad, while the northern half stood as the stronghold of the Assad regime.

Since the government seized the city, the escalation has developed into a routine for the civilians. While the genocidal tendencies no longer run rampant in Syria, artillery still rains like purgatory over the civilians as government forces try to permeate the southern region. The government forces have tried to impregnate the outskirts of Deraa al-Balad yet have continuously failed to topple the hold of the opposition leaders. In response, the roads are barricaded to surround the rebels, strangle their ammunition, and subdue their resistance. Instead, civilians have suffered starvation and casualties. Recently in July, an escalation resulted in the deaths of 18 civilians at the hands of the government forces as violence engulfed the city while the government forces attempted to breach the city.

A question is frequently posited; why do the government forces want to infiltrate the city so badly? Especially when the rebels have already surrendered heavy weaponry to the Syrian army. The foremost reason is the strategic location of Deraa al-Balad. The city is extremely proximate to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights: a strategic front touted as a key ground eyed by Iran’s proxies in Syria. The Iranian forces in the echelons of the Syrian army are driven by a motivation to gain access in the city to deploy forces on the southern front of Deraa. Meanwhile, the Russian offensive is at play to completely subdue the rebels to gain a whelming influence over Syria. Thus, the ulterior agendas of Iran and Russia could be labeled as the primary catalyst behind the raging military action around the city.

Another reason could be the desire of President Bashar al-Assad to crush opposition in every which way possible to avoid another scare in the future. The offense is clear in Idlib, Aleppo, and Deraa as the government forces are prudent in maintaining a pivotal position over the rebels to allow leverage if any faction decides to coagulate against the regime. Even during elections, almost a third of the Syrian population was barred from voting, including Deraa al-Balad, where mass demonstrations were staged to denounce Mr. Bashar al-Assad.

With his fourth stint in the office, President Assad has geared a renewed strategy to infiltrate the city of Deraa. The government now aims to deploy more forces in the city, run more rigorous checks and searches while gaining control of the frequented checkpoints of Deraa al-Balad. Moreover, the regime has demanded a surrender of soft weapons as well as a handover of the wanted opposition figures spewing venom against the regime. However, the rebel negotiators have called out for a peaceful transfer of all opposition leaders to Jordon or Turkey: a key point of contention. Furthermore, the leaders of Deraa have voiced their right to hold soft weapons and deny a thorough house search under the conditions of the 2018 Reconciliation accords. The impasse, however, exists as negotiations are teetering on a thin rope to somehow avoid chaos and bag a mutual consensus.

Since 2018, the Assad regime is accused of severing necessities from the city of Deraa al-Balad. Human rights observers have voiced concerns as the government forces continue to weaponize aid to bend the rebels to their will. International humanitarian organizations have cited that the government forces don’t differentiate between the civilians and the rebel fighters as hundreds of innocent civilians have been brutally killed since the government’s siege of northern Deraa. Now as the negotiations falter so does the standard of living of the civilians. Their lives have been forced to get accustomed to a constant fear of bombardment while barely surviving without food, medicines, or electricity.

Approximately 24,000 residents have been displaced while close to 12,000 still remain entrapped as government forces perpetually clash with the rebels. The harrowing reality is if the negotiations fail to settle the dispute, and the government’s assault progresses further, then surely the city of Deraa al-Balad would fall into a humanitarian crisis. A lasting solution is required, not a ceasefire, as both rebels and the government forces are not civil enough to maintain a passage of peace without going ballistic. The government (and the allied forces) should stop using civilians as scapegoats to lure the rebels and achieve geopolitical objectives. Instead, the government should strive for an inclusive society to put an end to the spiral of civil war – once and for all.

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