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Saudi-UK media tie-up: Targeting the non-Arabic-speaking Middle East

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Long satisfied to attempt to dominate pan-Arab media and battle it out with Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera television network, Saudi Arabia has now set its hegemonic sights on influencing the media landscape of the non-Arabic speaking greater Middle East.

In the wake of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s concentration last year of control of Saudi-owned pan-Arab media in an anti-corruption power and asset grab, Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG) this week announced a tie up with Britain’s Independent news website to launch services in Urdu, Turkish, Farsi and Arabic.

The announcement provided no details of the business model or whether and, if so, how the SRMG-owned, independent-branded websites would become commercially viable. That may not be an issue from the Independent’s perspective, given that the deal amounts to the British publication licensing its brand and content to a Saudi partner.

The bulk of the content of the new websites is slated to be produced by SRMG journalists in London, Islamabad, Istanbul and New York, with the Independent contributing only translated articles from its English-language website.

The sites, operated out of Riyadh and Dubai, would produce “highest-quality, free-thinking, independent news, insight and analysis on global affairs and local events,” the Independent said.

SRMG publishes the English-language Arab News and Arabic-language Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, newspapers operating within the constraints of tight Saudi censorship that do not challenge Saudi policies.

SRMG was chaired until he recently was appointed minister of culture by Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud. An unknown member of the Saudi ruling family, Prince Bader made headlines last year when he paid a record $450m for a Leonardo da Vinci painting of Jesus Christ, allegedly as a proxy bidder for Prince Mohammed.

Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel, a Saudi banker with no track record in media acquisitions, last year bought a 30 percent stake in the Independent. An executive of NCB Capital, a subsidiary of government-controlled National Commercial Bank, Mr. Abuljadayel said at the time he was investing on his personal account.

A cache of Saudi diplomatic cables leaked in 2015 documented a pattern of Saudi chequebook diplomacy that aimed to buy positive coverage of the kingdom by European, Middle Eastern and African media who were encouraged to put “learned” Saudi guests on talk shows and counter “media hostile to the kingdom.”

Cables by the late Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, suggested that Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat, and another Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily, Al Hayat, refrain from criticizing Lebanon and Russia.

Saudi funding ranged from the bailout of financially troubled media to donations, the purchase of thousands of subscriptions, and all-expenses paid trips to the kingdom. It was often driven by Saudi Arabia’s covert public diplomacy war with Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s near monopoly on staid pan-Arabic media was broken in 1996 with the launch of Al Jazeera and its free-wheeling, hard hitting reporting and talk shows. Al Jazeera’s disruption of conservative, Arab state broadcasting prompted Waleed bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim, a brother in law of the late King Fahd, to launch Al Arabiya as an anti-dote.

The rise of Al Jazeera cemented a realization in the kingdom that it needed to expand from print media into broadcasting. The need for broadcasting was initially driven home six years earlier when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Saudi authorities banned Saudi media from reporting the invasion only to discover on the third day that Saudis were getting their news from foreign media outlets, among which CNN.

The Saudi-Qatari battle for control of the air waves escalated in the run-up to this year’s World Cup in Russia. With Al Jazeera and beIN, the network’s sports franchise, blocked in the kingdom as part of the 13-month-old Saudi-UAE-led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar, Saudi Arabia initially turning a blind eye to beOutQ, a bootlegging operation operating out of the kingdom that used a satellite that is co-owned by the Saudi government.

Threatened by FIFA with punitive action, Saudi Arabia began cracking down on beOutQ and said it welcomed legal action in the kingdom being initiated by the world soccer body. At the same time, Saudi Arabia explored ways to challenge beIN’s broadcasting rights.

The choice of languages for the Independent websites suggests that SRMG sees the deal as strengthening its brand while supporting the kingdom in its battles with Qatar and Iran and quest for regional hegemony.

The launch of a Farsi website targets the kingdom’s arch rival Iran. Leaving politics aside, Iranians, confronted with an economic crisis that is being exasperated by harsh US sanctions, are unlikely to subscribe or advertise on the website. The same is true for Saudi businesses in the absence of diplomatic relations and given Saudi backing for the sanctions.

The Independent’s Turkish website will have to compete in a heavily populated media landscape that has largely been muzzled by President Recep Tayeb Erdogan. The website’s significance lies in the fact that Turkey supports Qatar in the spat that pits the Gulf state against Saudi Arabia and its allies, maintains close ties to Iran, and challenges Saudi regional ambitions in Palestine as well as the Horn of Africa.

In many ways, Urdu-speaking Pakistan, one of the world’s most populous Muslim nations that borders on Iran, has long supported the kingdom militarily, and is home to the world’s largest Shia Muslim majority, could prove to be the most lucrative element of SRMG’s tie up with the Independent.

In contrast to Turkey, Saudi Arabia enjoys empathy in major segments of Pakistan’s population, hosts a sizeable Pakistani community, has strong support among the country’s religious scholars as well as ties to influential militants whom the military is seeking to ease into mainstream politics, and funds religious media outlets.

At the bottom line, the SRMG-Independent tie-up may be for the kingdom less about business and more about soft power.

“A channel is a very economical way to influence people. Bang for your buck, it’s much cheaper than guns. It is about controlling the discourse, and for Saudis about being in charge,” said Hugh Miles, author of Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World. Mr. Miles’ analysis applies as much to broadcasting as it does to online media.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Rejiggering Gulf Security: China’s Game of Shadow Boxing

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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China and its Gulf partners appear to be engaged in a game of shadow boxing.

At stake is the future of Gulf security and the management of differences between the region’s conservative monarchies and revolutionary Iran.

With governments passing to one another unofficial subtle messages, intellectuals and journalists are the ones out front in the ring.

In the latest round, Baria Alamuddin, a Lebanese journalist who regularly writes columns for Saudi media, has cast subtlety aside.

Ms. Alamuddin warned in strong and rare anti-Chinese language that China was being lured to financially bankrupt Lebanon by Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia.

Writing in Arab News, the Saudi Arabia’s primary English-language newspaper, Ms. Alamuddin suggested that the Lebanese Shiite militia’s seduction of China was occurring against the backdrop of a potential massive 25-year cooperation agreement between the People’s Republic and Iran.

Her tirade was as much a response to reports of the alleged landmark agreement as it was to a declaration by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah that China was willing to invest in Lebanon’s infrastructure.

“Chinese companies are ready to inject money into this country. If this happened, it would bring money to the country, bring investment, create job opportunities, allow heavy transport, and so on,” Mr. Nasrallah said.

In a state-controlled media outlet in a country that has studiously backed some of the worst manifestations of Chinese autocratic behavior, including the brutal crackdown on Uyghur Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and the repression of democratic expression and dissidents, Ms. Alamuddin did not mince words.

“Chinese diplomacy is ruthless, mercantile and self-interested, with none of the West’s lip service to human rights, rule of law or cultural interchange.”

“Chinese business and investment are welcome, but Beijing has a record of partnering with avaricious African and Asian elites willing to sell out their sovereignty. Chinese diplomacy is ruthless, mercantile and self-interested, with none of the West’s lip service to human rights, rule of law or cultural interchange,” Ms. Alamuddin charged.

She quoted a Middle East expert of a conservative US think tank as warning that “vultures from Beijing are circling, eyeing tasty infrastructure assets like ports and airports as well as soft power influence through Lebanon’s universities.”

She went on to assert that “witnessing how dissident voices have been mercilessly throttled in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, Lebanese citizens are justifiably fearful that their freedoms and culture would be crushed under heavy-handed, authoritarian Chinese and Iranian dominance, amid the miserable, monolithic atmosphere Hezbollah seeks to impose.”

Ms. Alamuddin’s outburst implicitly recognized that China was signaling Gulf states, at a time of heightened uncertainty about the reliability of the United States’ regional defense umbrella, that they need to reduce tensions with Iran if the People’s Republic were to engage in helping create a new regional security architecture.

China was signaling Gulf states, at a time of heightened uncertainty about the reliability of the United States’ regional defense umbrella, that they need to reduce tensions with Iran.

Expressing concern about last month’s US decision to withdraw troops from Europe a day after Ms. Alamuddin’s stark criticism of China, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Assistant Secretary-General for political affairs and negotiation Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg suggested that “a more systematic framework, with organic feedback to the leadership and decision-makers” was needed for US-Gulf security discussions.

The GCC groups the Gulf’s six monarchies: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain.

China has been subtly pressuring Gulf states through academic and Communist party publications and public statements by prominent scholars with close ties to the government in Beijing.

Its messaging has primarily targeted Saudi Arabia, the one Gulf state that has so far refrained from engaging in any gestures towards Iran that could facilitate a dialing down of tension.

recent article in a renowned Chinese journal laid out the principles on which China is willing to break with its long-standing foreign and defense policy principles to engage in Gulf security.

The principles included “seeking common ground while reserving differences,” a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution.

Most Gulf states have extended a helping hand to Iran, the Middle East country most hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Iranian and UAE foreign ministers agreed in a recent video call to cooperate during the health crisis.

“We agreed to continue dialogue on [the] theme of hope—especially as [the] region faces tough challenges, and tougher choices ahead,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Twitter.

UAE officials said earlier that there were limits to a reduction of tensions. They said a real détente would only be possible once Iran changed its behavior, meaning a halt to support for proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen and a surrender of its nuclear ambitions.

The Chinese-Gulf shadow boxing takes place against a slow-moving and seemingly troubled US and Chinese-backed Pakistani effort to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Chinese-Gulf shadow boxing takes place against a slow-moving and seemingly troubled US and Chinese-backed Pakistani effort to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said last week without providing details that he had averted a military confrontation between the two Gulf powers. He said mediation was “making progress but slowly.”

Ms. Alamuddin’s column coupled with Saudi Arabia’s refusal to capitalize on the pandemic as way to reduce tensions, suggests that Saudi Arabia has yet to fully embrace Mr. Khan’s efforts.

Mr. Khan’s efforts are likely to be further complicated by the disclosure last month by Pakistani law enforcement that a Baloch gang leader, who was detained in 2017, had confessed to giving “secret information and sketches regarding army installations and officials to foreign agents,” believed to be Iranians.

It was not immediately clear what prompted the disclosure.

Pakistan has long asserted that Iran and India have lent support to Baloch nationalist militants responsible for multiple attacks on military and Chinese targets in the South Asian state.

“The Iran-Pakistan border issues are mainly affected by the sectarian rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. For Pakistan, this is a costly and difficult diplomatic situation at this time,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Pakistan has a vested interest in helping dial down Saudi-Iranian tensions. It takes, however, two to tango and a mediator whose efforts are not burdened by bilateral issues of his own with any of the parties.

To move the pendulum, more will be required than a regional go-between or subtle nudging. With the US likely to refrain from doing the heavy lifting, that task may be left to China. If Ms. Alamuddin is an indication, China is already discovering that changing the paradigm in the Middle East is easier said than done.

Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia

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Middle East

Evolving Japan-UAE ties

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Mohamed bin Zayed with Japan's Abe. Image Credit: WAM

Japan and the UAE share a unique relationship with each other. Japan recognised the UAE as an independent state in 1971 and opened its Embassy in the UAE in 1974 and on the other hand, UAE opened its embassy in Japan in 1973. Both nations share strong bilateral economic relations, dating back to 1961 when the first shipment of the crude oil was exported from Umm Al-Sharif offshore field in Abu Dhabi to Japan. Japan is known to be the world’s fourth-largest importer of oil. In 2017, it was the second-largest export market, behind China, for Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. The UAE became the top destination in the Middle East region for Japan’s exports, valued at $7.18 billion in 2019, taking economic bilateral relations to a great level. However, on 19 July 2020, UAE spacecraft rocketed into blue skies from a Japanese launch centre at the start of a seven-month journey to Mars on the Arab’s world’s first interplanetary mission. This mission gave a boost to its strategic relations as well as space cooperation.

Understanding their bilateral relations

The longstanding cordial relationship between the UAE and Japan has been honored for decades. In 2013, PM Shinzo Abe visited the UAE and both nations jointly announced the statement on the strengthening of the Comprehensive Partnership between Japan and the UAE towards stability and prosperity. The relations between both countries have mostly focused on the economy and trade ever since they established their diplomatic relations. Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Japan as an official guest in February 2014 to follow up the Joint Statement issued during the Prime Minister’s visit to the UAE in May 2013.

In 2016, the number of Japanese citizens living in the UAE totalled 4,000, while hundreds of Emirati citizens are in Japan for education and investment purposes.

According to the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO), In 2017, Japan imported Dh57.3 billion worth of oil from the UAE.

In 2018, the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Initiative (CSPI) was signed between the two countries when Abe visited the UAE. With the signing of the CSPI, the relationship between Japan and the UAE entered a new era of strategic partnership for the future and joint cooperation strategy between the institutions of the two countries. They also agreed to increase trade in areas which included renewable energy, advanced robots, artificial intelligence and health care. Ensuring cordial energy ties are critical under the CSPI. In 2018, Japan also acquired an oil concession in Abu Dhabi for the coming 40 years which proved that Japan is an important strategic energy partner in the UAE.

The leadership of the UAE has been keen on strengthening ties with Japan in areas like education, scientific research and industry. It aims to seek its ties with Japan to new levels as Japan possesses advanced technology which would serve the sustainable and comprehensive development goals in the UAE. Cooperation is very strong in the education field. The first Japanese school was inaugurated in the UAE in 2009 and began teaching the Arabic language, Islamic education and social studies to the students of the Emirates along with the Japanese curriculum. Furthermore, around 100 students from the Emirates are studying in Japanese universities for bachelors, masters and even PhD degrees.

In 2019, an attempt of initiating to teach Japanese as a second foreign language in some UAE high schools was discussed among both countries. Akihiko Nakajima, new Japanese ambassador to the UAE affirmed that ‘both nations are currently giving importance to educational cooperation’. The friendly ties were further strengthened in recent times when Sheikh Hazza Bin Zayed Al-Nahyen, Deputy Chairman of Abu Dhabi Executive Council and Dr Sultan Ahmad Al-Jaber, Minister of State and Special Envoy to Japan, attended the enthronement ceremony of the Japanese Emperor Naruhito in 2019. They wished that Japan shall achieve a brighter and more prosperous future during the ‘Reiwa Era’.

Japan and the UAE have been closely cooperating in space sciences. In October 2018, ‘KhalifaSat’ was launched into outer space from the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan aboard an H-IIA rocket. In January 2020, Shinzo Abe made an official visit to the UAE and other Gulf countries to further bolster the strong ties which have been evolving on multiple fronts like trade, energy, technology, space and education. “UAE-Japan relations are historic and based on trust, cooperation, respect and mutual interests,” Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed said. Abe and Sheikh Mohammad also witnessed the signing of an Energy Cooperation Agreement between supreme Petroleum Council, represented by Adnoc (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company), and Japan’s agency for natural resources and energy.

Space Cooperation

The lift-off of the Mars orbiter named Amal or Hope probe on 19th July 2020, from a Japanese launch centre is to be followed soon by China and the United States. Amal blasted off from the Tanegashima space centre aboard a Mitsubishi heavy industries H-IIA rocket. This has given a major boost to space cooperation between Japan and the UAE. Amal is set to reach Mars by February 2021, which will mark the year the UAE celebrates 50 years since the country’s formation. It points out that the launching of Amal was well planned in line with the celebration of 50 years of the country’s formation. “The UAE is now a member of the club and we will learn more and we will engage more and we’ll continue developing our space exploration program,” UAE Space Agency chief Mohammed Al Ahbabi told a joint online news conference from Tanegashima. The Amal statecraft costs $200 million and it is about the size of a small car, carries three instruments to study the upper atmosphere and monitor climate change. Japan’s services of such launches are known well for accuracy and on-time record. However, the providers are working to cut costs to be more competitive internationally. Japan also has its own Mars mission planned in 2024, where it aims to send spacecraft to the Martian moon Phobos to collect samples to bring back to Earth in 2029.

The objective of the UAE’S mission is to provide a comprehensive image of the weather dynamics and fundamentally, building a human settlement on Mars within the next 100 days. Omran Sharaf, the mission’s project manager said, “What is unique about this mission is that for the first time the scientific community around the world will have a holistic view of the Martian atmosphere at different times of the day at different seasons. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has said that ‘Hope Probe’ exemplifies the distinctive strategic partnership between the UAE and Japan.

It is the first time that the UAE attempted to send a deep space mission, that of a mission to Mars. It clearly sends a strong message to the Arab youth that if the UAE is able to reach Mars in less than 50 years, then they certainly can do much more. Emiratis also believed that it represented a step forward for the Arab world and for scientists.

However, energy remains a key priority in the ongoing relations between the two countries which may contribute significantly to energy development and economic diversification in the UAE and Japan. Through space and strategic cooperation, the two countries are looking to expand and deepen the fields of cooperation. A successful mission to Mars will indeed be a major step for the oil-dependent economy seeking a great future in space. The launch of the hope probe demonstrates that effective space cooperation is a driving force for strengthening their bilateral ties. Hope is expected to begin transmitting information back to earth by September 2021.

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Middle East

China-Iran Deal and its implication for the region

Ashish Dangwal

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From the past few years, the increasing partnership between China and Iran has raised major concerns among many countries. Sinking economy and the recent COVID crisis pushed Iran into the corner and China timely manifested itself as a perfect partner for Iran. The diplomatic ties between these two countries were established in 1971 and over the years China’s demand for energy and Iran’s isolation from the international community brings them together. The recent investment and security pact covered almost every sector from Telecom, banking, ports, railways and dozens of other projects. Though the secret details of the pact were leaked but soon rejected by Iranian officials.

In 2016, Xi Jinping made a state visit to Iran and then laid the structure of this deal. Soon after in 2019, China announced its plan to invest $ 400 billion. Iran’s economy is suffering greatly because of the U.S.A sanctions and needs a lifeline to revive their domestic market. Where one side, most of the companies from different nations pulled out their businesses from Iran, On the other hand, Chinese investment can play a significant role in Iran’s survival. This partnership between these two nations directly challenges U.S.A efforts to cut off Iran from the international market arena. China’s ever-growing aspirations to increase its involvement in the Middle East perfectly sync with the geostrategic location of Tehran. However, Iran’s ambition to become a regional power needs huge investment in its domestic market. That’s where both countries see themselves as an emerging partner. 

China-Iran Economic Relationship

As a growing economy, China dependence on Iran’s oil is quite reasonable. Though this relationship is not just based on the energy, but even on the many different aspects. After 2016, China and Iran were agreed to increase their trading relations to $600 billion in the upcoming 10 years. The agreement was concordant with One Belt, One Road framework. A total of 17 agreements were signed, including one which relates to the Iran nuclear programme. The Chinese will help connect Tehran with Mashhad via their high-speed rail technology.  After the sanctions levied by the USA and other western countrieson Iran, its dependence on China increased in recent years. The trading relationship is not only limit to purchase of crude oil but even China’s involvement inIran’s upstream and downstream production processes through major investments.From 2005, both countries signed seven upstream production agreement with each other. All these agreements involve the state-owned Chinese companies, which shows the significant presence of China in Iran.

China-Iran-Syria Nexus

In December 2019, Syrian president while giving an interview to a Chinese media expressed his willingness to join the BRI project and projected Syria as a perfect partner for the Chinese investment. Syria suffered a lot because of the decades of war and wanted to start the reconstruction activities in their country. Iran and China identified themselves as the ally of Syria and they even wanted to make a strategic nexus between these countries. For the reconstruction process, China is helping Syria from Port of Tripoli by setting up it as a logistic base for the reconstruction process. China wanted to link this port with Syria’s “Four sea strategy” and connect the BRI project to the eastern Mediterranean area. This whole economic bloc could challenge the American hegemony in the region. Iran and Syria are already strategic allies in this region and by adding China in this situation, it would promote the autocratic rule in the region to counter America.

The implication for the Region

Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy towards Iran pushed many countries like India and Japan to cut off the trading ties with Tehran. This was seen as the major diplomatic blunder made by the U.S.A because of the one very simple reason that these countries could play a major role to find the middle ground for the talks between Iran and the west.As claimed by the reports, China will increase its partnership to build the ports too, getting a port in the Persian Gulf will provide the major boost to Chinese strategic plans. If China successfully expands its presence in Iran then it will lead to the major conflict between the U.S.A and China. Though China has already invested heavily on the Gwadar port, it will not hesitate to gain an upper hand in the Persian Gulf. From where Beijing can keep its eye on U.S.A movements in the region. India’s investment progress in Iran was slow and that’s the reason recently Iran started the railway track construction work on its own.

The growing instability in the region will further escalate, as the partnership will grow between these countries. China’s ambitions to expand its BRI projects and Syria’s “Four seas strategy” can become a foundation for future projects in the whole region. Syrian President Bashar Assad has promoted this four seas strategy since 2009 that would transform the Damascus into a major trading hub. Syria wanted to form an economic space between Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria that will shape a new bloc of nations in the region. This plan includes the four seas of the region from the Mediterranean, Caspian, Black Sea, and the Persian Gulf, which makes easy for these nations from investment to transportation. 

The expanding partnership will lead to the architecture of a security structure between these three countries and will directly undermine the U.S.A presence in the region. The gradual consolidation of powers based on Anti-American and Anti-west sentiments can even form a proper security alliance where the inclusion of Turkey would be a possible scenario shortly. All these countries kind of having the same political regime one way or another, so for them it will be a great strategy to stop America’s presence from their domestic issues. If U.S.A wants to stop China’s involvement in the region, it needs to involve its key Asian partner, so that there will be some major power players in the region to maintain stability. 

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