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Turkish financial crisis adds to region’s chaos

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More than coincidence accounts for the visit to Iran by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on January 28, the same day that his economic policy collapsed in a most humiliating way.

As the Turkish lira collapsed to levels that threatened to bankrupt many Turkish companies, the country’s central bank raised interest rates, ignoring Erdogan’s longstanding pledge to keep interest rates low and his almost-daily denunciation of an “interest rate lobby” that sought to bring down the Turkish economy. Erdogan’s prestige was founded on Turkey’s supposed economic miracle.

Hailed as”the next superpower” by John Feffer of the Institute for Policy Studies, and as “Europe’s BRIC” by The Economist, Turkey has become the Sick Man of the Middle East. It now appears as a stock character in the comic-opera of Third World economics: a corrupt dictatorship that bought popularity through debt accumulation and cronyism, and now is suffering the same kind of economic hangover that hit Latin America during the 1980s.

That is not how Erdogan sees the matter, to be sure: for months he has denounced the “interest rate lobby”. Writes the Hurriyet Daily News columnist Emre Deliveli, “He did not specify who the members of this lobby were, so I had to resort to pro-government newspapers. According to articles in a daily owned by the conglomerate where the PM’s son-in-law is CEO, the lobby is a coalition of Jewish financiers associated with both Opus Dei and Illuminati. It seems the two sworn enemies have put aside their differences to ruin Turkey.”

US President Barack Obama told an interviewer in 2012 that Erdogan was one of his five closest overseas friends, on par with the leaders of Britain, Germany, South Korea and India. Full disclosure: as the Jewish banker who has been most aggressive in forecasting Turkey’s crisis during the past two years, I have had no contact with Opus Dei on this matter, much less the mythical Illuminati.

Erdogan was always a loose cannon. Now he has become unmoored. Paranoia is endemic in Turkish politics because so much of it is founded on conspiracy. The expression “paranoid Turk” is a pleonasm. Islamist followers of the self-styled prophet Fetullah Gulen infiltrated the security services and helped Erdogan jail some of the country’s top military commanders on dubious allegations of a coup plot. Last August a Turkish court sentenced some 275 alleged members of the “Ergenekon” coup plot, including dozens of military officers, journalists, and secular leaders of civil society.

Now Gulen has broken with Erdogan and his security apparatus has uncovered massive documentation of corruption in the Erdogan administration. Erdogan is firing police and security officials as fast as they arrest his cronies.

There is a world difference, though, between a prosperous paranoid and an impecunious one. Turkey cannot fund its enormous current borrowing needs without offering interest rates so high that they will pop the construction-and-consumer bubble that masqueraded for a Turkish economic miracle during the past few years.

The conspiracy of international bankers, Opus Dei and Illuminati that rages in Erdogan’s Anatolian imagination has triumphed, and the aggrieved prime minister will not go quietly. As Erdogan abhors old allies who in his imagined betrayed him and seeks new ones, the situation will get worse.

One of the worst ideas that ever occurred to Western planners was the hope that Turkey would provide a pillar of stability in an otherwise chaotic region, a prosperous Muslim democracy that would set an example to anti-authoritarian movements. The opposite has occurred: Erdogan’s Turkey is not a source of stability but a spoiler allied to the most destructive and anti-Western forces in the region.

It seems unlikely that the central bank’s belated rate increase will forestall further devaluation of the lira. With inflation at 7.4% and rising, the central bank’s 10% reference rate offers only a modest premium above the inflation rate. About two-fifths of Turkey’s corporate debt is denominated in foreign currency, and the lira’s decline translates into higher debt service costs. Turkey is likely to get the worst of both worlds, namely higher local interest rate and a weaker currency.

Now Erdogan’s Cave of Wonders has sunk back into the sand. Few analysts asked how Turkey managed to sustain a current account deficit that ranged between 8% and 10% of gross domestic product during the past three years, as bad as the Greek deficit during the years before its financial collapse in 2011.

The likely answer is that Turkey drew on vast amounts of credit from Saudi and other Gulf state banks, with strategic as well as financial motives. Data from the Bank for International Settlements show that Turkey financed a large part of its enormous deficit through the interbank market, that is, through short-term loans to Turkish banks from other banks.

Western banks report no such exposure to Turkey; the Gulf banks do not report regional exposure, and anecdotal evidence suggests that Sunni solidarity had something to do with the Gulf states’ willingness to take on Turkish exposure.

Relations between Turkey and the Gulf States are now in shambles. Saudi Arabia abhors the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to replace the old Arab monarchies with Islamist regimes founded on modern totalitarian parties, while Erdogan embraced the Brotherhood. The Saudis are the main source of financial support for Egypt’s military government, while Ankara has denounced the military’s suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Whether the Gulf States simply ran out of patience or resources to support Erdogan’s credit binge, or whether their displeasure at Turkey’s misbehavior persuaded them to withdraw support, is hard to discern. Both factors probably were at work. In either case, Erdogan’s rancor at Saudi Arabia has brought him closer to Teheran.

Turkey should have restricted credit growth and raised interest rates to reduce its current account deficit while it still had time. Erdogan, though, did the opposite: Turkish banks increased their rate of lending while reducing interest rates to businesses and consumers.

Given the country’s enormous current account deficit, this constituted irresponsibility in the extreme. Erdogan evidently thought that his mandate depended on cheap and abundant credit. The credit bubble fed construction, where employment nearly doubled between 2009 and 2013. Construction jobs increased through 2013, after manufacturing and retail employment already had begun to shrink.

I predicted the end of Erdogan’s supposed economic miracle in the Winter 2012 edition of Middle East Quarterly, comparing Erdogan’s boomlet to the Latin American blowouts of the 1990s:

In some respects, Erdogan’s bubble recalls the experiences of Argentina in 2000 and Mexico in 1994 where surging external debt produced short-lived bubbles of prosperity, followed by currency devaluations and deep slumps. Both Latin American governments bought popularity by providing cheap consumer credit as did Erdogan in the months leading up to the June 2011 national election. Argentina defaulted on its $132 billion public debt, and its economy contracted by 10 percent in real terms in 2002. Mexico ran a current account deficit equal to 8 percent of GDP in 1993, framing the 1994 peso devaluation and a subsequent 10 percent decline in consumption.

In the meantime, Turkey has entered a perfect storm. As its currency plunges, import costs soar, which means that a current account of 8% of GDP will shortly turn into 10% to 12% of GDP – unless the country stops importing, which means a drastic fall in economic activity. As its currency falls, its cost of borrowing jumps, which means that the cost of servicing existing debt will compound its current financing requirements. The only cure for Erdogan’s debt addiction, to borrow a phrase, is cold turkey.

The vicious cycle will end when valuations are sufficiently low and the government is sufficiently cooperative to sell assets at low prices to foreign investors, and when Turkish workers accept lower wages to produce products for export.

One might envision a viable economic future for Turkey as the terminus on the “New Silk Road” that China proposes to build across Central Asia, with high-speed rail stretching from Beijing to Istanbul. Chinese manufacturers might ship container loads of components to Turkey for assembly and transshipment to the European and Middle Eastern markets, and European as well as Asian firms might build better factors in Turkey for export to China. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Turkey’s path to Europe lies not through Brussels but through Beijing.

That is Turkey’s future, but as the old joke goes, it can’t get there from here.

Turkey has a small but highly competent professional class trained at a handful of good universities, but the Erdogan regime – the so-called “Anatolian tigers” – have disenfranchised them in favor of Third World corruption and cronyism. The secular parties that bear the faded inheritance of Kemal Ataturk lack credibility. They are tainted by years of dirty war against the Kurds, of collusion with military repression, and their own proclivity towards a paranoid form of nationalism.

Erdogan’s AKP is a patronage organization that has run out of cash and credit, and its fate is unclear. The highly influential Gulen organization has a big voice, including the Zaman media chain, but no political network on the ground.

No replacement for Erdogan stands in the wings, and the embattled prime minister will flail in all directions until the local elections on March 30.

The last thing to expect from Erdogan is a coherent policy response. On the contrary, the former Anatolian villager thrives on contradiction, the better to keep his adversaries guessing.

Turkish policy has flailed in every direction during recent weeks. Erdogan’s Iran visit reportedly focused on Syria, where Turkey has been engaged in a proxy war with Iran’s ally Basher al-Assad. Ankara’s support for Syrian rebels dominated by al-Qaeda jihadists appears to have increased; in early January Turkish police stopped a Turkish truck headed for Syria, and Turkish intelligence agents seized it from the police. Allegedly the truck contained weapons sent by the IHH Foundation, the same group that sent the Mavi Marmara to Gaza in 2010. The Turkish opposition claims that the regime is backing al-Qaeda in Syria. One can only imagine what Erdogan discussed with his Iranian hosts.

Some 4,500 Turks reportedly are fighting alongside 14,000 Chechnyans and a total of 75,000 foreign fighters on the al-Qaeda side in Syria. Ankara’s generosity to the Syrian jihadists is a threat to Russia, which has to contend with terrorists from the Caucasus, as well as Azerbaijan, where terrorists are infiltrating through Turkish territory from Syria. Russia’s generally cordial relations with Turkey were premised on Turkish help in suppressing Muslim terrorism in the Caucasus. There is a substantial Chechnyan Diaspora in Turkey, aided by Turkish Islamists, and Moscow has remonstrated with Turkey on occasion about its tolerance or even encouragement of Caucasian terrorists.

I doubt that Erdogan has any grand plan in the back of his mind. On the contrary: having attempted to manipulate everyone in the region, he has no friends left. But he is in a tight spot, and in full paranoid fury about perceived plots against him. The likelihood is that he will lean increasingly on his own hard core, that is, the most extreme elements in his own movement.

Erdogan has been in what might be called a pre-apocalyptic mood for some time. The long term has looked grim for some time, on demographic grounds: a generation from now, half of all military-age men in Turkey will hail from homes where Kurdish is the first language. “If we continue the existing [fertility] trend, 2038 will mark disaster for us,” he warned in a May 10, 2010, speech reported by the Daily Zaman.

But disaster already has arrived. In some ways Turkey’s decline is more dangerous than the Syrian civil war, or the low-intensity civil conflict in Iraq or Egypt. Turkey held the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s eastern flank for more than six decades, and all parties in the region – including Russia – counted on Turkey to help maintain regional stability. Turkey no longer contributes to crisis management. It is another crisis to be managed.

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Israel-Palestine: Risk of ‘deadly escalation’ in violence, without decisive action

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photo: UNOCHA/Mohammad Libed

With violence continuing daily throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process urged the Security Council on Tuesday to adopt a more coordinated approach to the region.  

Tor Wennesland told Council Members that “recent developments on the ground are worrying”, pointing out the situation in the West Bank and Gaza and the challenges faced by the Palestinian Authority.  

“I therefore emphasize again the importance of concerted efforts by the parties to calm things on the ground. I am concerned that if we do not act quickly and decisively, we risk plunging into another deadly escalation of violence”, he warned. 

He informed that, in the last month, violence resulted in the death of four Palestinians, including two children, and injuries to 90 others – including 12 children – due to action by Israeli Security Forces. 

One Israeli civilian was killed in the same period, and nine civilians, including one woman and one child, and six members of ISF were injured.  

Challenges 

Mr. Wennesland said that a severe fiscal and economic crisis is threatening the stability of Palestinian institutions in the West Bank. 

At the same time, he added, “ongoing violence and unilateral steps, including Israeli settlement expansion, and demolitions, continue to raise tensions, feed hopelessness, erode the Palestinian Authority’s standing and further diminish the prospect of a return to meaningful negotiations.” 

In Gaza, the cessation of hostilities continues to hold, but the Special Envoy argued that “further steps are needed by all parties to ensure a sustainable solution that ultimately enables a return of legitimate Palestinian Government institutions to the Strip.” 

Settlements 

The Special Coordinator also said that “settler-related violence remains at alarmingly high levels.” 

Overall, settlers and other Israeli civilians in the occupied West Bank perpetrated some 54 attacks against Palestinians, resulting in 26 injuries. Palestinians perpetrated 41 attacks against Israeli settlers and other civilians, resulting in one death and nine injuries.  

Mr. Wennesland highlighted a few announcements of housing units in settlements, reiterating that “that all settlements are illegal under international law and remain a substantial obstacle to peace.” 

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities have also advanced plans for some 6,000 housing units for Palestinians in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of al-Issawiya and some 1,300 housing units for Palestinians living in Area C (one of the administrative areas in the occupied West Bank, agreed under the Oslo Accord). 

The Special Envoy welcomed such steps but urged Israel to advance more plans and to issue building permits for all previously approved plans for Palestinians in Area C and East Jerusalem. 

Humanitarian aid delivered 

Turning to Gaza, the Special Envoy said that humanitarian, recovery and reconstruction efforts continued, along with other steps to stabilize the situation on the ground. 

He called the gradual easing of restrictions on the entry of goods and people “encouraging”, but said that the economic, security and humanitarian situation “remains of serious concern.” 

The Special Envoy also mentioned the precarious financial situation of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which still lacks $60 million to sustain essential services this year. 

The agency has yet to pay the November salaries of over 28,000 UN personnel, including teachers, doctors, nurses and sanitation workers, many of whom support extended families, particularly in the Gaza Strip, where unemployment is high.  

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Saudi religious moderation is as much pr as it is theology

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Mohammed Ali al-Husseini, one of Saudi Arabia’s newest naturalized citizens, ticks all the boxes needed to earn brownie points in the kingdom’s quest for religious soft power garnered by positioning itself as the beacon of ‘moderate,’ albeit autocratic, Islam.

A resident of Saudi Arabia since he had a fallout with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia, Mr. Al-Husseini represents what the kingdom needs to support its claim that its moderate form of Islam is religiously tolerant, inclusive, non-sectarian, pluralistic, and anti-discriminatory.

More than just being a Shiite, Mr. Al-Husseini is the scion of a select number of Lebanese Shiite families believed to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.

Put to the test, it is a billing with as many caveats as affirmatives – a problem encountered by other Gulf states that project themselves as beacons of autocratic interpretations of a moderate strand of the faith.

Even so, Saudi Arabia, despite paying lip service to religious tolerance and pluralism, has, unlike its foremost religious soft power competitors – the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia, yet to legalise non-Muslim worship and the building of non-Muslim houses of worship in the kingdom.

Similarly, the first batch of 27 newly naturalized citizens appeared not to include non-Muslims. If it did, they were not identified as such in contrast to Mr. Al-Hussein’s whose Shiite faith was clearly stated.

The 27 were naturalized under a recent decree intended to ensure that Saudi Arabia can compete with countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Singapore in attracting foreign talent. About a quarter of the new citizens, including Mr. Al-Husseini and Mustafa Ceric, a former Bosnian grand mufti, were religious figures or historians of Saudi Arabia.

In doing so, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman linked his economic and social reforms that enhanced women’s rights and catered to youth aspirations to his quest for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. The reforms involved tangible social and economic change. Still, they refrained from adapting the ultra-conservative, supremacist theology that underlined the founding of the kingdom and its existence until the rise of King Salman and his son, the crown prince, in 2015.

Prince Mohammed’s notion of ‘moderate’ Islam is socially liberal but politically autocratic. It calls for absolute obedience to the ruler in a deal that replaces the kingdom’s long-standing social contract in which the citizenry exchanged surrender of political rights for a cradle-to-grave welfare state. The new arrangement expands social rights and economic opportunity at the price of a curtailed welfare state as well as the loss of political freedoms, including freedoms of expression, media, and association.

A series of recent op-eds in Saudi media written by pundits rather than clerics seemingly with the endorsement, if not encouragement of the crown prince or his aides, called for top-down Martin Luther-like religious reforms that would introduce rational and scientific thinking, promote tolerance, and eradicate extremism.

Mamdouh Al-Muhaini, general manager of the state-controlled Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath television networks, spelled out the top-down process of religious reform that would be led by the crown prince even though the writer stopped short of identifying him by name.

“There are dozens, or perhaps thousands, of Luthers of Islam… As such, the question of ‘where is the Luther of Islam’ is wrong. It should instead be: Where is Islam’s Frederick the Great? The King of Prussia, who earned the title of Enlightened Despot, embraced major philosophers in Europe like Kant and Voltaire and gave them the freedom to think and carry out scientific research, which helped their ideas spread and prevail over fundamentalism after bitter clashes. We could also ask where is Islam’s Catherine the Great…? Without the support and protection of these leaders, we would have likely never heard of these intellectuals, nor of Luther before them,” Mr. Al-Muhaini said.

Messrs. Al-Husseini and Ceric represent what Saudi Arabia would like the Muslim and non-Muslim world to take home from their naturalization.

A religious scholar, Mr. Ceric raised funds in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Malaysia during the Bosnian war in the 1990s and defended issues close to Saudi Arabia’s heart even if his own views are more liberal.

Mr. Ceric argued, for example, that opposition to Wahhabism, the kingdom’s austere interpretation of Islam that has been modified since King Salman came to power, amounted to Islamophobia even if the cleric favoured Bosnia’s more liberal Islamic tradition. The cleric also opposed stripping foreign fighters, including Saudis, of Bosnian citizenship, granted them for their support during the war.

To Saudi Arabia’s advantage, Mr. Ceric continues to be a voice of Muslim moderation as well as proof that Islam is as much part of the West as it is part of the East and the hard to defend suggestion that being a liberal does not by definition entail opposition to ultra-conservatism.

Referring to the fact that he is a Shiite, Mr. Al-Husseini said in response to his naturalisation by a country that was created based on an ultra-conservative strand of Islam that sees Shiites as heretics: “The glowing truth that cannot be contested is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is open to everyone…and does not look at dimensions of…a sectarian type.”

Beyond being a Shiite Muslim cleric, Mr. Al-Husseini is to have been a Hezbollah insider. A one-time proponent of resistance against Israel, Mr. Al-Husseini reportedly broke with Hezbollah as a result of differences over finances.

He associated himself on the back of his newly found opposition to Hezbollah with the Saudi-backed March 14 movement headed by Saad Hariri, a prominent Lebanese Sunni Muslim politician.

As head of the relatively obscure Arabic Islamic Council that favoured inter-faith dialogue, particularly with Jews, Mr. Al-Husseini ticked off another box on the Saudi checklist, particularly given the kingdom’s refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel without a clear and accepted pathway to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While Mr. Al-Husseini’s history fits the Saudi bill, his impact appears to be limited. He made some incidental headlines in 2015 after he used social media to urge Muslims, Jewish, and Christian clerics to downplay religious traditions that call for violence.

Mr. Al-Husseini spoke as the tension between Israel and Lebanon mounted at the time after Hezbollah killed two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border attack.

Earlier, Mr. Al-Husseini seemingly became the first Arab Shiite religious figure to address Israelis directly and to do so in broken Hebrew.

“We believe that not all Jews are bad [just as] not all Muslims are terrorists. Let us cousins put our conflicts aside and stay away from evil and hatred. Let us unite in peace and love,” Mr. Al-Husseini told an unknown number of Israeli listeners.

Mr. Al-Husseini’s presence on social media pales compared to that of the Muslim World League and its head, Mohammed Al Issa. The League, the one-time vehicle for Saudi funding of Muslim ultra-conservatism worldwide, and its leader, are today the main propagators of Prince Mohammed ’s concept of moderate Islam.

Mr. Al-Husseini’s 47,00 followers on Twitter and 10,200 on Facebook pale against his Saudi counterparts who propagate a message similar to his.

The League has 2.8 million Twitter followers in English and 3.4 million in Arabic in addition to 662,000 in French and 310,00 in Urdu. The League boasts similar numbers on Facebook. The League’s president, Mr. Al-Issa, has 670,000 followers on Twitter and 272,000 on Facebook.

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Vienna Talks: US-Russia-China trilateral and Iran

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Talks between Iran and other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) 2015/Iran Nuclear deal regarding the revival of the deal resumed at Vienna on November 29, 2021 after a hiatus of five months (the talks which began on April 2021 have been stalled since June 2021). The US has not been participating directly in these talks.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi who won the June 2021 election has not been opposed to engaging with other signatories to the JCPOA, including the US, but has repeatedly stated, that Iran would only return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement, if its key demands are addressed favorably, and would give precedence to its national interest.

 EU political director, Enrique Mora sounded optimistic with regard to the resumption of the talks, and while talking to reporters said:

‘I feel positive that we can be doing important things for the next weeks’

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, also the country’s chief nuclear negotiator,  said that the US is adopting a ‘maximum pressure’ approach (referring to economic sanctions) which would not help in achieving any genuine results.

Ali Bagheri Kani’s statement underscores the fact that any significant headway with regard to the Iran nuclear deal is likely to be an uphill task.  Iran has increased its uranium enrichment and uranium stockpile, away above the limits agreed upon during the 2015 agreement, and has also restricted access of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to it’s nuclear program. Tehran has also made it clear, that if the US lifts all economic sanctions, it will get back to full compliance to the agreement of 2015. Tehran is also seeking a guarantee from the US, that in future it would not withdraw from an agreement, as Donald Trump had done.

 The Biden Administration too has been adopting a more aggressive stance vis-à-vis Iran in recent months (Iranian officials have gone to the extent of saying that Biden’s Iran policy is no different from that of Trump). The US seems to be unwilling to remove all sanctions against Iran. US has also been saying that if diplomacy fails it will need to explore other options against Iran and would not refrain from exerting more pressure . On Monday, a US State Department spokesman categorically stated that ‘If Iran demands more or offers less than a mutual return to compliance, these negotiations will not succeed,’.

US-Russia-China trilateral and Iran

In recent weeks, Washington has made efforts to reduce tensions with Beijing and Moscow, sending out a message that it is keen to work with both countries on certain issues – especially Afghanistan, Climate Change and Iran.

Both Moscow and Beijing have adopted a different stance from Washington on the Iran issue. Washington’s decision to host a Democracy Summit (December 9-10, 2021) has not gone down to well with either especially Beijing.

 During a video conversation on November 24, 2021 with Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi not only supported Tehran’s demands with regard to the JCPOA, but also criticized the Summit For Democracy saying that it will only create further divisions globally.  Russia’s Ambassador to Tehran, Levan Dzhagaryan, also supported Tehran’s demands saying some of them were pertinent. In a newspaper interview he said:

‘For example, they, the Iranian side, want to guarantee, let’s say, in future Americans wouldn’t repeat the same step as they did before.  The Iranian side also needs some guarantees from the European businesses to fulfill and to implement all that contract. It is quite logical’

US President, Joe Biden while seeking to have a working relationship with China and Russia has also been trying to work together with democracies, and also send out a message that democracies can deliver (hours before his conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 14, 2021, Biden signed into law an ambitious 1.2 trillion USD infrastructure package). The Summit for Democracy was aimed at greater coordination with other democracies, especially US allies, on important global issues, but it remains to be seen if the Summit will raise tensions between Washington and Beijing and Moscow, and thus indirectly act as an impediment to further progress on talks related to the Iran nuclear deal.

While Biden’s emphasis on democracies working together, and the need to check China’s growing clout is legitimate, it is important that he does not make the same mistakes as Trump and does not compel Iran to become an appendage of China (imposition of further sanctions at a time when Iran’s economy is in the doldrums will only increase the Anti-US sentiment in Iran). It is also important that the US works closely with its allies on the Iran issue. France, Germany and UK should be playing a more pro-active role in the revival of JCPOA and should not be quiet bystanders. Iran on its part also needs to demonstrate flexibility and pragmatism.

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