Many commentators, most eloquently Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal, draw a parallel between the appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938 and the appeasement of Iran at Geneva.
There is another, more chilling parallel: Iran’s motive for proposing to annihilate the Jewish State is the same as Hitler’s, and the world’s indifference to the prospect of another Holocaust is no different today than it was in 1938. It is the dead’s envy for the living.
Dying civilizations are the most dangerous, and Iran is dying. Its total fertility rate probably stands at just 1.6 children per female, the same level as Western Europe, a catastrophic decline from 7 children per female in the early 1980s. Iran’s present youth bulge will turn into an elderly dependent problem worse than Europe’s in the next generation and the country will collapse. That is why war is likely, if not entirely inevitable.
Iran’s Elderly Dependent Ratio
Elderly Dependent Ratio
Source: UN “Low Variant”
The table above is drawn from United Nations projections. It probably underestimates Iran’s predicament: the UN’s “low variant” puts the country’s total fertility rate at 1.9 children as of 2015, but it already has fallen to just 1.6. This means in simple arithmetic that a generation hence, there will be two elderly dependents for every three workers, compared to 7 elderly dependents for every 93 workers today. That is a death sentence for a poor country, and at this point it is virtually irreversible.
As the United States Institute for Peace wrote in its April 2013 “Iran Primer“:
Iran’s low fertility rate has produced a rapidly aging population, according to a new U.N. report. The rate has declined from 2.2 births per woman in 2000 to 1.6 in 2012. This has pushed the median age of Iranians to 27.1 years in 2010, up from 20.8 years in 2000. The median age could reach 40 years by 2030, according to the U.N. Population Division. An elderly and dependent population may heavily tax Iran’s public health infrastructure and social security network.
In 2005 and 2006, I was the first Western analyst to draw strategic conclusions from this trend, the steepest decline in fertility in the history of the world. Iran must break out and establish a Shiite zone of power, or it will break down.
Iran’s theocracy displays the same apocalyptic panic about its demographic future that Hitler expressed about the supposed decline of the so-called Aryan race. Unlike Hitler, whose racial paranoia ran wild, Iran’s presentiment of national death is well founded on the facts. That is not to understate Iran’s paranoia. In 2013 Iran’s Vice President alleged that Jews ran the international drug trade. In a June 2013 Facebook post earlier this year Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini wrote, “U.S. President is being elected [sic] only from two parties while Zionist regime is controlling everything from behind the scenes.” That captions a cartoon showing fat men with moneybags for heads under a Star of David. Iranian officials routinely threaten to “annihilate the Zionist regime.”
The difference, to be sure, is that Germany’s decline was by no means inevitable in 1938, while Iran’s decline cannot be reversed. Iran’s leaders know this quite well. Its universities have competent demographers who helped frame the first studies of Iran’s fertility decline, and its leaders have inveighed for years against the failure of Iranian women to bear children. Persian-language website warn of the tidal wave of elderly dependents who will swamp Iran’s economy. For all the public anguish the situation gets worse by the year. Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute is doing the definitive work on this.
Why should Iran’s fertility decline so drastically? In my 2011 book How Civilizations Die (and How Islam is Dying, Too) I observed that Muslim countries jump from infancy to senescence without passing through adulthood. Wherever Muslim countries have wrenched their people out of traditional society into the modern world, a demographic transition has ensued, compressing the slow decline of fertility of the West during the past two centuries into a couple of decades. Literacy (and female literacy in particular) is the best predictor of fertility in Muslim countries: the best educated among them, namely Tunisia, Algeria, and Turkey also have fallen below replacement fertility. Iran’s fertility fell the fastest in part because the deposed Shah set in motion a crash literacy program.
Hitler only hallucinated the exhaustion of a mythical Aryan race: Iran’s leaders live with the certainty that their civilization has barely a generation left before it collapses. Even a modest increase in fertility from present levels would do nothing to avert the coming train wreck, and the problem is getting worse by the year.
What is the “national interest” of a dying country? In the case of Hungary, for example, with a Magyar fertility rate of less than 0.9, it is to ease the transition into oblivion by selling the country to foreigners and turning its capital into a theme park for tourists. 1,100 years ago the Magyars were feared conquerors who threatened the fragile recovery of newly-Christianized Europe; today they are a relic. Iran is not so ready to go gentle into that demographic night, however. It lashes out against enemies real and imagined, and the enemies it imagines in its worst nightmares are the Jews.
Why the Iranians, and why the Jews? Jew-hatred is rampant in the Muslim world, to be sure, but that did not prevent Egypt and Jordan from keeping the peace with Israel for thirty years. Nor does it prevent Saudi Arabia, where Arabic editions of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” line bookstore shelves, from making a tactical alliance with Israel. Except for Iran no Muslim regime trumpets its intention to “annihilate the Zionist” regime in routine utterances.
Iran has no common border with Israel. No Iranian soldier has killed an Israeli soldier in combat since the founding of the Jewish State. Yet hatred and fear of the Jews is a palpable presence in the minds of Iran’s rulers. Some days the mullahs make the Nazis look rational by comparison. I cited a lecture given by an advisor to Iran’s culture minister insisting that the cartoon “Tom and Jerry” was part of a plot by Jewish studio executives in Hollywood to rehabilitate the image of Jews.
Iran’s theocrats hate and fear the Jews for the same reason that Hitler did. The “Master Race” delusion of the Nazis twisted the Chosenness of Israel into a doctrine of racial election; for the “Master Race” to be secure in its dominion, the original “paragon and exemplar of a nation” (Rosenzweig) had to be exterminated. Islam is by construction a supercessionist religion. It claims that the Jewish and Christian Scriptures perverted the original prophecy of Islam, and that Mohammed restored the true religion through the Koran. Mohammed is the “seal of the prophets,” the final and definitive exponent of God’s word, replacing the falsified version of Christians and Jews.
Muslims may believe this and peaceably await the day when its competitor religions will crumble and the whole world will acknowledge its prophet, just as Jews pray thrice daily for the Messianic era when all the world will acknowledge one God by one name. But it is difficult for Iran to be patient when its self-conceived guardians of God’s message are staring into an inescapable abyss at the horizon of a single generation. This is a culture inherently incapable of reflection on its own deficiencies, one that has nourished itself for 1,200 years on morbid rancor against the Sunni Muslim majority and more recently against the West. Patience in this case is a poison.
Israel thus faces a new Hitler and the threat of a new Holocaust. There is no way to portray the situation in a less alarming light. That is one parallel to 1938; another is the response of the world’s powers to the emergence of this monster.
To the declining nations of Western Europe, Israel’s national self-assertion is a moral outrage. Since St. Isidore of Seville persuaded the Visigoth kings of Spain to adopt Christianity with the promise that they would become the leaders of a chosen nation in emulation of King David, the national consciousness of the European nations has taken the form of national election. I argued in a 2008 essay for the religious monthly First Things:
As Franz Rosenzweig observed, once the Gentile nations embraced Christianity, they abandoned their ancient fatalism regarding the inevitable extinction of their tribe. It is the God of Israel who first offers eternal life to humankind, and Christianity extended Israel’s promise to all. But the nations that adhered to Christendom as tribes rather than as individuals never forswore their love for their own ethnicity. On the contrary, they longed for eternal life in their own Gentile skin rather than in the Kingdom of God promised by Jesus Christ. After Christianity taught them the election of Israel, the Gentiles coveted election for themselves and desired their own people to be the chosen people. That set ethnocentric nationalism in conflict both with the Jews—the descendents of Abraham in the flesh—and with the Church, which holds itself to be the new People of God.
As Rosenzweig put it, “Precisely through Christianity the idea of Election has gone out amongst the individual nations, and along with it a concomitant claim upon eternity. It is not that the case that such a claim upon eternity conditioned the entire life of these peoples; one hardly can speak of this. The idea of Election, upon which such a claim [upon eternity] uniquely can be based, becomes conscious for the peoples only in certain exalted moments, and in any case is more of a festive costume than their workaday dress. . . . Still, there sleeps upon the foundation of one’s love for one’s own people the presentiment that someday in the distant future it no longer will be, and this gives this love a sweetly painful gravity.”
The European elite cannot distinguish its own past parody of Israel’s election from the self-understanding of the Jewish people as a blessing to all nations by virtue of its unique national life. Israeli nationalism only brings to mind Europe’s failed nationalisms and their horrendous denouement in the world wars of the past century. Europe is enervated, exhausted by past wars, aging, hedonistic and cynical. It is not surprising that the nations of Europe once again would avert their eyes to the threat of another Holocaust.
What explains, though, the Obama administration’s obsession with a compromise at any cost with the Tehran regime? I have not changed my view of what an Asian leader private called “America’s NGO president” since I profiled Barack Obama in February 2008:
America is not the embodiment of hope, but the abandonment of one kind of hope in return for another. America is the spirit of creative destruction, selecting immigrants willing to turn their back on the tragedy of their own failing culture in return for a new start. Its creative success is so enormous that its global influence hastens the decline of other cultures. For those on the destruction side of the trade, America is a monster. Between half and nine-tenths of the world’s 6,700 spoken languages will become extinct in the next century, and the anguish of dying peoples rises up in a global cry of despair. Some of those who listen to this cry become anthropologists, the curators of soon-to-be extinct cultures; anthropologists who really identify with their subjects marry them. Obama’s mother, the University of Hawaii anthropologist Ann Dunham, did so twice.
Obama’s most revealing disclosure, perhaps, came in his autobiobraphy Dreams of My Father as he recounts his thoughts while visiting Chicago’s public housing as a young community organizer:
And yet for all that poverty [in the Indonesian marketplace], there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust. It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like [the Chicago housing projects] so desperate.
He deeply identifies with the fragile, unraveling cultures of the Third World against the depredations of the globalizing Metropole. So, I suspect, does his mentor and chief advisor, the Iranian-born Valerie Jarrett, and most of his inner circle. This goes beyond the famous declaration of Jimmy Carter’s advisor Hamilton Jordan—”the Palestinians are the n****ers o the Middle East”—and Carter’s own mainline-Protestant reverence for the “holy men” of Iran’s 1979 Iranian revolution. It goes beyond the post-colonial theory of liberal academia. For Obama, it is matter of personal experience. His father and stepfather were Third World Muslims, his mother was an anthropologist who dedicated her life to protecting the traditional culture of Indonesia against the scourge of globalization, and four years of his childhood were spent at an Indonesian school. The same point has been made by Dinesh d’Souza, among others.
Obama’s commitment to rapprochement with Iran arises from deep personal identification with the supposed victims of imperialism. That is incongruous, to be sure. Persia spent most of his history as one of the nastier imperial powers, and its present rulers are no less ambitious in their pursuit of a pocket empire in the Shi’ite world. The roots of his policy transcend rationality. Israel can present all the evidence in the world of Iran’s plans to build nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and the Iranians can cut the Geneva accord into confetti. Obama will remain unmoved. His heart, like his late mother’s, beats for the putatively oppressed peoples of the so-called Third World.
No factor of this sort was present in 1938: Neville Chamberlain did not sympathize with Hitler. He simply feared him and needed time to rearm, as the Wall Street Journal‘s Mr Stephens observes. If Lord Halifax rather than Chamberlain had been Prime Minister then, the parallel to Obama would be stronger.
I do not know how Israel will respond. There are too many unknowns in the shifting political equation of the Middle East to solve that equation. But the facts on the ground support the Israeli view that the Geneva accord puts the Jewish State at existential risk.
Who are the real betrayers of Egypt, Critics or Sycophants?
“You are betraying your country by exposing its defects!” is a common accusation made by the sycophants to the ruling regime in Egypt who have managed to well situated themselves in our society simply by blindly praising the ruler’s policies. Apparently, these sycophants place a higher value on the privileges that they have gained to living in a truly advanced nation. In fact, the real betrayers of any given authoritarian nation are those who justify this immoral ruling mechanism for their own personal gain.
Despotism is the evilest ruling mechanism ever devised; apart from its cruelty and unfairness, it works on inflating the ruler’s ego by mirroring his thoughts that are always passionately endorsed by his flatterers, regardless of their merits! Meanwhile, the ruler’s manipulation of the entire political sphere impairs the state’s ability to detect and correct its blunders. Concurrently, the harsh and inhuman treatment of the state’s critics, which includes threats to their personal lives, results in spreading fear throughout the entire society.
A successful strategy for running a country ruled by a tyrannical government is to enable ignorant citizens to dominate the state media exclusively, thus empowering them to express their opinions on a much wider scale than knowledgeable citizens. This approach consequently creates significant friction between knowledgeable and ignorant citizens, resulting in the polarization of the entire nation. The state methodically fuels this process by labeling the mediocre as loyal citizens and accusing its critics of treason.
The privileging of sycophants financially, along with advancing their power and upscaling their status, have prompted many Egyptians to join this beneficial club, which prerequisites praising superiors and justifying their faults, thus compensating for the natural dullness and incompetence of the flatterers. Meanwhile, the state’s critics who demand freedom and stand by their values are aware that they are engaged in a long-lasting battle and are risking their lives for generations to come!
In fact, sycophants are the weakest link in the state’s ruling dynamics. They hypocritically heap intense praise on the security apparatus who sacrifice their lives to defend our nation – but do their utmost to ensure that their youngsters abandon their military duty; just one facet of their deceitful conduct. Sycophantic behavior and false testimony are the most sinful acts in Islam; yet they have become, ironically, a habitual pattern of behavior in our social norms.
That Egypt needs to be ruled by an Iron-fist is a common argument put forth by the flatterers. It is translated into applying harsh measures to critics and laxity toward lawbreakers – a proposition that reflects the low moral values espoused by flatterers to secure their status. The policy of maximum repression adopted by the current ruling regime might be successful in controlling society; however, it has certainly contributed to an escalation of terrorism activities by political Islamists against the military apparatus.
In my former party, the Egyptian Democratic Front, a few executive party members used to instantly report our internal discussions to the State Security apparatus. In addition totheir immoral conduct and betrayal of their peers, they used to enhance their ratting out by exacerbating our opposing political stands. I argued, at that time, for either offering those ratters a crash course on “minutes-taking” or inviting the State Security apparatus to participate in our meetings to better learn about our viewpoints.
“Cairo is a dirty city” – a painful remark that I occasionally hear from international visitors to our capital. The Egyptian State will never be able to manipulate the perception of millions of diversified tourists who visit Cairo yearly, but we can easily work to bring order to our city and live in a hygienic place. The same applies to other qualities of life such as freedom, dignity and justice; we need to highlight deficiencies in these areas to be able to advance our nation.
President Al Sisi has a clear desire to be a remarkable leader; he believes that expanding our roads and building new flyovers will make Egypt an advanced nation and that these developments will be credited to his legacy. The president is unaware that the future of our country will be written and judged by the youths of today, who are extremely angry with him due to his policy of demolishing humanity and freedom, compounded by his inability to create decent jobs for youngsters.
Egypt is currently confronting a number of complex internal and external challenges, including an economic slowdown, a civil war on our eastern borders, a potential water shortage due to the filling of Ethiopian GRED and rising unemployment. All of these challenges, and many more, will simply be intensified by our deep polarization, further weakening the state. The sycophants’ deliberate misleading of Egypt concerning these challenges is dragging our nation downward, transforming us into a fragile state.
Advancing an old-fashioned country like Egypt requires honest citizens who have bold ideas and enough courage to implement their ideas. These qualities are found more among knowledgeable citizens and critics of the state who are already sacrificing for their country; large numbers of them are spending their best years in prison simply for having voiced their opinions. Modernizing Egypt will require our president to unite our nation, appointing well-educated citizens to key positions and completely discarding state sycophants.
Israel-China Relations: Staring Into the Abyss of US-Chinese Decoupling
Israel knew the drill even before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boarded his flight to Tel Aviv earlier this month four days after the death of his father. It was Mr. Pompeo’s first and only overseas trip since March.
Echoing a US warning two decades ago that Israeli dealings with China jeopardized the country’s relationship with the United States, Mr. Pompeo’s trip solidified Israel’s position at the cusp of the widening US-Chinese divide.
Two decades ago the issue was the potential sale to China of Israeli Phalcon airborne warning and control systems (AWACS). Israel backed out of the deal after the US threatened withdrawal of American support for the Jewish state.
This month the immediate issue was a Chinese bid for construction of the world’s largest desalination plant and on the horizon a larger US-Chinese battle for a dominating presence in Eastern Mediterranean ports.
Within days of his visit, Mr. Pompeo scored a China-related success even if the main focus of his talks with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was believed to be Iran and Israeli plans to annex portions of the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.
Israel signalled that it had heard the secretary’s message by awarding the contract for the Sorek-2 desalination plant to an Israeli rather than a Chinese company.
The tender, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.
China’s interest in Israel is strategic given the fact that the Jewish state is one of the world’s foremost commercial, food and security technology powerhouses and one of the few foreign countries to command significant grassroots support in the United States.
If there is one thing Israel cannot afford, it is a rupture in its bonds to the United States. That is no truer than at a time in which the United States is the only power supportive of Israeli annexation plans on the West Bank.
The question is whether Israel can develop a formula that convinces the United States that US interests will delineate Israeli dealings with China and reassure China that it can still benefit from Israeli assets within those boundaries.
“Right now, without taking the right steps, we are looking at being put in the situation in which the US is telling us we need to cut or limit our relations with China. The problem is that Israel wants freedom of relations with China but is not showing it really understands US concerns. Sorek-2 was a good result. It shows the Americans we get it.” said Carice Witte, executive director of Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL) that seeks to advance Israeli-Chinese relations.
Analysts, including Ms. Witte, believe that there is a silver lining in Israel’s refusal to award the desalination plant to a Chinese company that would allow it to steer a middle course between the United States and China.
“China understands that by giving the Americans this win, China-Israel relations can continue. It gives them breathing room,” Ms. Witte said in an interview.
It will, however, be up to Israel to develop criteria and policies that accommodate the United States and make clear to China what Israel can and cannot do.
“In order for Israel to have what it wants… it’s going to need to show the Americans that it takes Washington’s strategic perceptions into consideration and not only that, that it’s two steps ahead on strategic thinking with respect to China. The question is how.” Ms. Witte said.
Ports and technology are likely to be focal points.
China is set to next year takeover the management of Haifa port where it has already built its own pier and is constructing a new port in Ashdod.
One way of attempting to address US concerns would be to include technology companies in the purview of a still relatively toothless board created under US pressure in the wake of the Haifa deal to review foreign investment in Israel. It would build in a safeguard against giving China access to dual civilian-military use technology.
That, however, may not be enough to shield Israel against increased US pressure to reduce Chinese involvement in Israeli ports.
“The parallels between the desalination plant and the port are just too close to ignore. We can’t have another infrastructure divide,” Ms. Witte said.
The two Israeli ports will add to what is becoming a Chinese string of pearls in the Eastern Mediterranean.
China already manages the Greek port of Piraeus.
China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) is looking at upgrading Lebanon’s deep seaport of Tripoli to allow it to accommodate larger vessels.
Qingdao Haixi Heavy-Duty Machinery Co. has sold Tripoli port two 28-storey container cranes capable of lifting and transporting more than 700 containers a day, while a container vessel belonging to Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO docked in Tripoli in December 2018, inaugurating a new maritime route between China and the Mediterranean.
Major Chinese construction companies are also looking at building a railroad that would connect Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon to Homs and Aleppo in Syria. China has further suggested that Tripoli could become a special economic zone within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and serve as an important trans-shipment point between the People’s Republic and Europe.
BRI is a massive infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven effort to connect the Eurasian landmass to China.
Potential Chinese involvement in reconstruction of post-war Syria would likely give it access to the ports of Latakia and Tartous.
Taken together, China is looking at dominating the Eastern Mediterranean with six ports in four countries, Israel, Greece, Lebanon, and Syria that would create an alternative to the Suez Canal.
All that is missing are Turkish, Cypriot and Egyptian ports.
The Chinese build- up threatens to complicate US and NATO’s ability to manoeuvre in the region.
The Trump administration has already warned Israel that Chinese involvement in Haifa could jeopardize continued use of the port by the US fifth fleet.
“The writing is on the wall. Israel needs to carve out a degree of wiggle room. That however will only come at a price. There is little doubt that Haifa will move into the firing line,” said a long-time observer of Israeli-Chinese relations.
Will Gulf States Learn From Their Success in Handling the Pandemic?
The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic for Gulf states has done far more than play havoc with their revenue base and fiscal household. It has propelled massive structural change to the top of their agenda in ways that economic diversification plans had not accounted for.
Leave aside whether Gulf states can continue to focus on high-profile, attention-grabbing projects like Neom, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion USD 21st century futuristic city on the Red Sea.
Gulf rulers’ to do list, if they want to get things right, is long and expensive without the burden of trophy projects. It involves economic as well as social and ultimately political change.
Transparency and accurate and detailed public reporting go to the core of these changes.
They also are key to decisions by investors, economists, and credit rating companies at a time when Gulf states’ economic outlook is in question. Many complain that delays in GDP reporting and lack of easy access to statistics complicates their decision-making.
Nonetheless, if there is one thing autocratic Gulf governments have going for themselves, beyond substantial financial reserves, it is public confidence in the way they handled the pandemic, despite the fact that they failed to initially recognize crowded living circumstances of migrant workers as a super spreader.
Most governments acted early and decisively with lockdowns and curfews, testing, border closures, repatriation of nationals abroad, and, in Saudi Arabia, suspension of pilgrimages.
To be sure, Gulf countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia that receives millions of Muslim pilgrims from across the globe each year, have a long-standing history of dealing with epidemics. Like Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, they were better prepared than Western nations.
History persuaded the kingdom to ban the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in late February, days before the first case of a Covid-19 infection emerged on Saudi soil.
Beyond public health concerns, Saudi Arabia had an additional reason to get the pandemic right. It offered the kingdom not only an opportunity to globally polish its image, badly tarnished by human rights abuses, power grabs, and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but also to retain religious influence despite the interruption in the flow of pilgrims to the kingdom.
“Saudi Arabia is still a reference for many Muslim communities around the world,” said Yasmine Farouk, a scholar of Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
It also allowed Saudi Arabia to set the record straight following criticism of its handling of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 when the kingdom became the epidemic’s epicenter and in 2009 when it was hit by the H1N1 virus.
Saudi Arabia is also blamed for contributing to a public health catastrophe in Yemen with its frequent indiscriminate bombings.
A country in ruins as a result of the military intervention, Yemen has grappled for the past four years with a cholera epidemic on the kingdom’s borders.
Trust in Gulf states’ handling of the current pandemic was bolstered by degrees of transparency on the development of the disease in daily updates in the number of casualties and fatalities.
It was further boosted by a speech by King Salman as soon as the pandemic hit the kingdom in which he announced a raft of measures to counter the disease and support the economy as well as assurances by agriculture minister Abdulrahman al-Fadli that the crisis would not affect food supplies.
Ms. Farouk suggested that government instructions during the pandemic were followed because of “trust in the government, the expertise and the experience of the government [and] trust in the religious establishment, which actually was following the technical decisions of the government.”
To be sure, Ms. Farouk acknowledged, the regime’s coercive nature gave the public little choice.
The limits of government transparency were evident in the fact that authorities were less forthcoming with details of public spending on the pandemic and insight into available medical equipment like ventilators and other supplies such as testing kits.
Some Gulf states have started publishing the daily and total number of swabs but have yet to clarify whether these figures include multiple swabbings of the same person.
“It is likely that publics in the Middle East will look back at who was it that gave them reliable information, who was it who was there for them,” said political scientist Nathan Brown.
The question is whether governments will conclude that transparency will be needed to maintain public confidence as they are forced to rewrite social contracts that were rooted in concepts of a cradle-to-grave welfare state but will have to involve greater burden sharing.
Gulf governments have so far said little about burden sharing being allocated equitably across social classes nor has there been transparency on what drives investment decisions by sovereign wealth funds in a time of crisis and changing economic outlook.
Speaking to the Financial Times, a Gulf banker warned that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “needs to be careful what he spends on . . . Joe Public will be watching.”
Headed by Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund has gone on a $7.7 billion USD shopping spree buying stakes in major Western blue chips, including four oil majors: Boeing, Citigroup, Disney, and Facebook. The Public Investment Fund is also funding a bid for English soccer club Newcastle United.
The banker suggested that Saudi nationals would not appreciate “millionaire footballer salaries being paid for by VAT (value added tax) on groceries.” He was referring to this month’s hiking of sales taxes in the kingdom from five to 15 percent.
The fragility and fickleness of public trust was on display for the world to see in Britain’s uproar about Dominic Cummings, a close aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who violated lockdown instructions for personal reasons. Mr. Johnson is struggling to fight off demands for Mr Cummings’ dismissal.
To be sure, senior government officials and business executives in the Gulf have cautioned of hard times to come.
A recent Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey of CEOs predicted that 70 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ companies would go out of business in the next six months, including half of its restaurants and hotels and three-quarters of its travel and tourism companies.
Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan warned earlier this month that the kingdom would need to take “painful” measures and look for deep spending cuts as a result of the collapse of oil prices and significantly reduced demand for oil.
Aware of sensitivities, Mr. Al-Jadaan stressed that “as long as we do not touch the basic needs of the people, all options are open.”
There was little transparency in Mr. Al-Jadaan’s statements on what the impact would be on employment-seeking Saudi nationals in a labor market where fewer migrant workers would be available for jobs that Saudis have long been unwilling to accept.
It was a missed opportunity considering the 286 percent increase in the number of Saudis flocking to work for delivery services.
The increase was fueled by an offer by Hadaf, the Saudi Human Resources Development Fund, to pay drivers $800 USD a month, as well as a newly-found embrace of volunteerism across the Gulf.
The surge offered authorities building blocks to frame expectations at a time when the kingdom’s official unemployment rate of 12 percent is likely to rise.
It suggested a public acknowledgement of the fact that well-paying, cushy government positions may no longer be as available as they were in the past as well as the fact that lesser jobs are no less honorable forms of employment.
That may be the silver lining as Gulf states feel the pressure to reinvent themselves in a world emerging from a pandemic that potentially will redraw social, economic, and political maps.
Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia
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