Birth pains of a new order in the Middle East

Birth pains of a new order  in the Middle East

Ongoing conflict, multiple socioeconomic and political crises as well as the pervasive specter of COVID-19 will continue to accelerate the destabilization of several countries in the Middle East, potentially driving some to the brink of collapse.
The region faces an ever-widening array of threats, not helped by the disruption caused by the pandemic, intensifying great power rivalry and medium powers seeking greater influence in regional affairs — enlisting proxies to sideline national will in favor of external interests. The increasingly visible signs of a warming climate, ecological degradation and water scarcity only further imperil global public health, spark new humanitarian crises, cripple even the most stable societies, compound unmitigated social woes such as inequality, and intensify political instability.
In the past decade alone, great power competition in the Middle East has shifted from the messy and costly short-sighted interventions between countries, to sporadic skirmishes or rivalries playing out within nations, on the ground, in the air and in cyberspace. The wider the array of threats, the greater their complexity and potential to spill into other arenas, making their resolution impossible. Already, Chinese and Russian technological and military rivalry with the US is fueling new tensions and new escalations, as both countries push to change global norms — by, for instance, normalizing Iran’s regional destabilization agenda or even indirectly supporting its malign activities in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. Elsewhere, a global race to enhance military, cyber, extra-terrestrial and other capabilities has only heightened risks, especially where conventional deterrence measures are no longer effective.
The findings of the US intel chiefs and the extrapolations to be made from them in the Arab world are not limited to the military, diplomacy, political or technology spheres. The report also came shortly after an International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast an assessment of Middle East economies up to 2023. Last year, the IMF predicted GDP growth of about 3 percent, but as countries slowly recover from the worst of the pandemic that forecast has been revised upwards to 4 percent. Unfortunately, this “recovery” will be divergent, and probably a source of new headaches, since uneven economic development will spark irregular migration from countries the IMF termed “late inoculators” such as Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan, towards the “early inoculators” such as the Gulf States, Morocco and Kazakhstan.
Vaccine availability, access and acceleration of inoculation campaigns form most of the basis for upgrading the regional growth forecast, but this applies only to the few oil exporting Arab states that can afford them, due to relatively stable oil prices. Most of the region, however, is expected to not reach full vaccination until 2023, especially those that have significant tourism exposure or limited fiscal or monetary room to enact expansionary policies. Thus, the promised return to “normal” will be stalled in countries already reeling from pandemic-induced socioeconomic woes such as rising poverty, inequality, and youth unemployment.
The region faces an ever-widening array of threats, not helped by the disruption caused by the pandemic, intensifying great power rivalry and medium powers seeking greater influence in regional affairs — enlisting proxies to sideline national will in favor of external interests.
Another short-term threat stemming from the pandemic is how vaccine diplomacy is now part of the arsenal in intensifying geopolitical competition. COVID-19 is already straining Arab budgets, with some states ratcheting up debt to unprecedented levels. Failure to maintain or increase expenditure will only create new crises and political unrest, leaving some states vulnerable to prolonged instability and foreign encroachment in their domestic affairs. Generally, as the pandemic has persisted and crises deepened, so too has authoritarian fervor and a penchant for the undemocratic, fueling popular discontent and existing grievances, especially when governments consistently fail to answer expectations for much-needed reforms.
It is unsurprising, therefore, to see the Middle East written off as a region characterized by pervasive domestic volatility and conflict. Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria top the list of countries of concern; Tehran, for instance, is expected to remain a threat to interests shared by the US and its regional partners. Failure to curb Iranian provocation will only further endanger the wider region as Tehran seeks to project power, entrench its influence, radicalize overseas Shiite populations, deflect international pressure and target perceived threats to its sanctions-riddled regime. Iran’s economy remains in shambles, which limits how Tehran will try to advance its goals — by seeking concessional diplomacy, arming proxies with conventional weapons, not excluding cruise missiles and drones, or advancing its nuclear programs. It is through these that Tehran will remain a major destabilizing force in Iraq, and maintain an influence in Syria, Yemen and even Afghanistan. In Iraq, while the threat of Daesh has largely receded and dented any prospects of a resurgence of terrorism in the region, the country’s fate remains firmly in the grip of Tehran-backed actors, deeply embedded in its society, economy and political processes. Some of these armed militants have become a vehicle for Iran to launch attacks on bases were US forces and other personnel are located. Threats of continued attacks will serve as some form of leverage as both Washington and Tehran look to enter into talks regarding the latter’s nuclear ambitions and pledges to enrich fissile material beyond the levels agreed in the 2015 nuclear deal. For Libya, the Government of National Unity (GNU) faces the same security, political and economic challenges that led to the demise of its predecessors and diminished prospects of enduring national reconciliation. For now, a ceasefire holds but Russia, Turkey, Egypt and others will continue to funnel financial, military and material support to local proxies and non-state actors, which only heightens the risk of more instability and makes renewed fighting an inevitability. While the external actors have welcomed the GNU and voiced support for its mandate, none have committed to withdrawing about 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries. Until foreign forces leave Libya, no amount of progress or talks will reduce the risk of conflicts flaring up again.
Lastly, for Syria, while the fighting has subsided save for a few skirmishes, threats remain in the form of humanitarian crises and deniable attacks targeting US forces or Syrian Kurds. The Assad regime will continue to struggle with re-establishing control over all of Syria, including parts now occupied by Turkish forces, extremists and what remains of the opposition. Meanwhile, Syrian Kurds face declining economic and humanitarian conditions, combined with the inevitability of a US withdrawal from the region, which could leave them vulnerable to combined Syrian regime, Russian and Turkish pressure. Renewed fighting in the midst of a humanitarian disaster and severe economic decline will spark new waves of irregular migration, creating yet another crisis in a region already drowning in them.
From all the above, it is not difficult to see that our region will face another troubled year. One can still hope, however, that because of all this the region is simply going through the birth pains of a new regional order as many other nations have done before.
—Arab News

Pakistan’s digital awakening

Pakistan’s digital  awakening

Pakistan, the world’s fifth most populous country, is witnessing an historic moment in the Tech sector. About 20,000 graduates are entering the workforce annually with a prevailing pool of more than 360,000 IT engineers; marking it as the fastest growing freelance market. There is a phenomenal growth expectancy in the number of IT engineers that is aiming to add a trajectory of $8.2 billion ($1.2 billion in Q1 2021, 46 percent up from 2019) to the exports industry within this decade. This is no surprise given that the majority of the population (approximately 70 percent) is under the age of 35 and speaks English as a common language after Urdu), thereby compounding the growth prospects to be experienced sooner than the decade optimistically.
In 1997, Technology was 1.5 percent of the MSCI (Emerging Markets Index). Today, it accounts for 32 percent. While the numbers bode well for future confidence, one must also look at infrastructure and the encouraging environment that propels these developments. It was only in the year 2000 that Pakistan approved the country’s first IT policy and implementation strategy, which became a cornerstone of founding new industries and developing new technologies. A decade later, the investments in of $4.6 billion (2012-2013) in IT projects (infrastructure, e-government, 3G/4G and human resource development) boosted mobility on the public side as well as major breakthroughs in government systems, such as law enforcement agencies and NADRA, which has aided government institutions and reduced inconsistencies. The current government’s push for ‘Digital Pakistan’ with the conviction of ‘knowledge based economy’ is an exemplary (and logical next step) measure for early digital inclusion and timely adoption of cutting-edge technologies, leading to the socio-economic wellbeing of the country. Additionally, possessing a progressive regulator such as the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), the nation is trailblazing towards the Prime Minister’s Digital Pakistan vision by issuing Electronic Money institutions (EMI) approvals (increased approval activities in the last year, for example licensing SadaPay), and actively pursuing reforms in financial frameworks, its pursuit is gaining momentum.
Supporting policies such as reform of Telecom sector taxations are welcome moves that need to expand to the wider sector in order to speed up the implementation of Digital Pakistan. The notable improvement regarding ease of doing business (Doing Business 2020, World Bank, 2019) report is a welcome reflection of multiple reforms and streamlining processes. These policies and support should be pursued for the unforeseeable future without a dip in dedication and commitment, which is not uncommon in a country like Pakistan especially during a change in political regime. With innovation and entrepreneurship leading the IT revolution, the government must not take its foot off the pedal in playing its role through the continued implementation of regulatory and fiscal frameworks that nurture tech start-ups and provide an environment that further propels its growth. Additionally, the government department’s must deliver on actions set out within the 2019 e-Commerce Policy, including facilitating company registration processes, improving interoperability of payment platforms and ensuring consumer protection.
Pakistan’s current government support, dedication and commitment along with a trusted environment in which citizens, tech start-ups and enterprises can flourish will ensure Pakistan’s IT sector’s phenomenal performance continuation, along with steady advancement towards status as a South Asia digital powerhouse of South Asia through advanced connectivity, greater mobile engagement and a skilled youth population that has so far carried these efforts individually, to be supported and propelled by the revolution led by the government’s digital vision to take the ‘Naya Pakistan’ further forward.

Afghan pullout could be risky for Biden

Afghan pullout could be risky for Biden

At its start, America’s war in Afghanistan was about retribution for 9/11. Then it was about shoring up a weak government and its weak army so that Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida could never again threaten the United States. Now it’s about over. With bin Laden long since dead and the United States not suffering another major attack, President Joe Biden is promising to end America’s longest war and move on to what he believes are bigger, more consequential challenges posed by a resurgent Russia and a rising China. Even so, by withdrawing the remaining few thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Biden is taking a calculated risk that extremists in Afghanistan can be countered by U.S. and partner forces elsewhere in the region — and that he won’t become the president who underestimated the resilience and reach of extremists who still aim to attack the United States.
CIA Director William Burns told Congress on Wednesday the U.S. unavoidably will lose some intelligence leverage against the extremist threat, although he suggested the losses would be manageable.
“The U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact,” Burns said. “It is also a fact, however, that after withdrawal, whenever that time comes, the CIA and all of our partners in the U.S. government will retain a suite of capabilities, some of it remaining in place, some of them that we will generate, that can help us to anticipate and contest any rebuilding effort.”
There were 2,500 to 3,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan when Biden took office, the sm-allest number since early in the war. The number peaked at 100,000 during President Barack Oba-ma’s first term. As U.S. war casualties have decl-ined, so has the American public’s attention. The war was barely mention-ed during last year’s pre-sidential contest, and pulling the plug may prove politically popular.
Yet worries remain. Stephen Biddle, a Columbia University professor who has advised U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, says it’s possible al-Qaida could re-establish its base structure in Afghanistan once the Americans and their coalition partners leave.
The Taliban in Afghanistan pledged in a February 2020 agreement with the Trump administration that they would not allow al-Qaida or other extremist groups to use Afghan territory to threaten the United States. But that deal may be imperiled by Biden’s decision not to complete the withdrawal of forces by May 1, as the Trump administration had promised.
The bigger peril, Biddle said in an email exchange, is that the withdrawal could lead to the collapse of Afghan security forces and multi-sided civil warfare involving Taliban factions and others “in a more-lethal version of the civil war of the 1990s.”
“This would be a humanitarian disaster for Afghans — far worse than today’s insurgency,” he said.
More broadly, the absence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan could lead to further instability in a region with two rival nuclear powers — Pakistan and India, which have insurgencies of their own to contend with.
“This is already a dangerous part of the world; making it worse by allowing the collapse of the Afghan government is the biggest risk here,” Biddle said.
At a previously pivotal moment in the war, Obama took a similar view. When he announced a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in December 2009, he argued against trying to contain extremist threats in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region only with what the U.S. military calls “over-the-horizon” forces — troops and aircraft positioned beyond Afghan borders.
“To abandon this area now — and to rely only on efforts against al-Qaida from a distance — would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al-Qaida and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies,” Obama said.
So Obama went ahead with a troop buildup aimed at hitting the Taliban so hard that they would agree to negotiate a peace deal. It didn’t work. The Taliban kept fighting. Even after President Donald Trump authorized a more muscular military approach to the Taliban in 2017, the hard-hit militant group did not give up. It agreed to negotiate with the Afghan government, but those talks have stalled.
It’s difficult to judge what has been gained in the 12 years since Obama escalated the war. Afghan security forces likely are stronger, although their resilience will be tested in the absence of U.S. support they grew to rely upon. The Afghan government has not strengthened its authority across the country, and the Pentagon argues that its intense focus on countering insurgents there and in the Middle East has been such a drain on resources that the U.S. is losing ground against China and Russia.
The war has cost more than 2,300 U.S. lives and immeasurable suffering among Afghans since the United States invaded in October 2001. Ten years into the war, in May 2011, U.S. forces killed bin Laden in Pakistan, and for a short time it seemed possible that Washington would see an opening for ending the war.
A few weeks after bin Laden’s death, a young American soldier at a dusty outpost in eastern Afghanistan asked visiting Defense Secretary Robert Gates what effect the al-Qaida leader’s demise would have on the war, suggesting hope that it would hasten its end and allow troops to go home. “It is too early to tell,” Gates replied.
Ten years later, Biden has decided the time has come, although for Afghans the war may be far from over.
—Star Tribune

Why is Russia amassing troops on Ukraine border?

Why is Russia amassing troops on Ukraine border?

Over the past few weeks, Russia has been amassing troops at the Ukrainian border, triggering alarm in Kyiv and European Union capitals. Kremlin-controlled TV channels have been busy preparing the public in Russia for a fresh outbreak of war. Alarmingly jingoistic statements are being made on various talk shows, with hosts and guests suggesting the possibility of Russia seizing new chunks of Ukrainian territory or even advancing as far as Kyiv.
Western observers have been speculating that President Vladimir Putin is trying to test US President Joe Biden’s resolve or that he wants to distract public attention in Russia from the plight of the first poisoned, then imprisoned opposition leader Aleksey Navalny. It is also not inconceivable that he might be entertaining the idea of replicating the “Crimea effect” by waging “a small victorious war” on the eve of parliamentary elections in September. In 2014, the annexation of Crimea resulted in a huge surge in his personal popularity.
But given Putin’s propensity to stealthy and surprising moves, the current deployment of troops is way too demonstrative to be a preparation of imminent invasion. Their enhanced visibility has made some observers conclude that they are meant as intimidation rather than outright aggression.
From the Russian perspective, however, the Kremlin is being reactive, not proactive, in the face of a newly emerging threat. The amassing of troops is the Kremlin’s heavy-handed response to what it interprets as a coordinated attempt by Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to upset the fragile equilibrium which underpinned a relative calm on the front line in eastern Ukraine. A landmark event, which preceded this escalation, was the war in Nagorno-Karabakh last fall, in which Russia’s military ally, Armenia, was soundly defeated by Azerbaijan with the assistance of Turkey, a NATO member. That war demonstrated the limits of Russia’s ability and willingness to get dragged into another serious conflict. It also highlighted the vulnerabilities of an army overly reliant on Russian weapon supplies, particularly against Turkish drones.
The Atlantic Council, a hawkish NATO-linked think tank, which to a large extent drives the Ukrainian discourse in Washington, was quick to suggest that the war in Nagorno-Karabakh opened a possibility of a military solution in Donbas, while peace talks were a road to nowhere. Incidentally, both Karabakh and Ukraine talks take place at the same venue – Minsk, Belarus. The Minsk agreements were imposed on Ukraine after it suffered a series of defeats in the war against Russia-backed Donbas separatists in 2015. If implemented in full, they essentially ensure that Russia retains a stake in Ukrainian politics, allowing it to block the country’s membership in NATO – Moscow’s main concern that drives its Ukraine policy. Kyiv has long tried to amend the agreements while threatening to leave the Minsk framework altogether, but Moscow would not budge. The arrival of Biden’s administration coincided with Zelenskyy adopting a new assertive policy on Russia, which could not help but alarm the Kremlin. First, his government closed TV channels associated with Viktor Medvedchuk, an oligarch seen as Putin’s man in Ukraine. The move primarily served to undermine Medvedchuk’s Opposition Platform/For Life party. This Russia-friendly force emerged as Ukraine’s most popular party at the end of 2020, not least because of Zelensky’s failure to bring peace and repeal the ethnonationalist legislation restricting the use of the Russian language, a ticking time bomb set up by his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, in the last days of his presidency.
Meanwhile, Ukraine renewed its efforts to attain NATO membership. Three days after Biden entered the White House, Zelenskyy gave an interview to US media outlet Axios, in which he made clear Ukraine’s readiness to join the transatlantic alliance under this US administration. The interview was followed by foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba publishing an op-ed on the Atlantic Council’s website titled: Why is Ukraine still not in NATO?, which called for launching a membership plan for Ukraine. On March 5, the same think-tank presented a list of recommendations to the Biden administration, which included granting Ukraine the status of a “major non-NATO ally” and threatening Russia with activating a NATO membership plan for Ukraine, if Moscow fails to be more cooperative on Donbas.
In the meantime, the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine – Zelenskyy’s main achievement on the peace settlement front – essentially collapsed. At the end of March, Putin spoke to French and German leaders, the co-sponsors of the Minsk peace talks, to communicate his concern about the aggravating situation. Ukraine was demonstratively excluded from the conversation. Soon after, Russia began amassing troops at the Ukrainian border. In sharp contrast with his habitually dovish approach, Zelenskyy is not backing off. On April 6, he told NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that NATO was “the only way to end the war in Donbas” and that the membership action plan would be “a real signal for Russia”. A real signal indeed: A few hours later, Russian defence minister Sergey Shoygu ordered a combat readiness check for the whole Russian army. Ukraine’s NATO membership is a clear red line not just for the Kremlin, but for Russian society as a whole. It would place hostile troops just 500km (310 miles) south of Moscow, in addition to them already being stationed 600km (373 miles) to the west of the Russian capital, in Baltic countries. This would not only elicit a hostile response from the Kremlin, but it would also solidify Putin’s regime for years to come and marginalise the currently fledgeling anti-Putin opposition.
Putin is known for skilfully exploiting the unhealed trauma of World War II to mobilise support, including from people who do not like his other policies. America’s disregard for that trauma and its never-ending flirtation with radical nationalism in Eastern Europe makes it all too easy for the Kremlin to sell NATO to Russians as an existential threat. Diplomats representing all parties involved are surely working hard to prevent the worst, but all of this does not bode well for millions of eastern Ukrainians trapped between Putin’s dictatorship and the American-backed ethnonationalist project for Ukraine – as promoted by Atlantic Council pundits – which defies the social and cultural reality in the post-Soviet region. A renewed conflict will inevitably lead to renewed polarisation in Ukraine. A unifying figure who transcends the country’s east-west linguistic divide, Zelenskyy might be Ukraine’s last chance to save itself from partition and the West’s last chance to preserve Ukraine as a potential role model serving to inspire pro-democracy Russians. No one, except war-mongering hawks in Moscow, Washington and Kyiv, would gain from another blood bath in Ukraine.
—Al-Jazeera

Rethinking national politics

Barkat Ullah

Due to lack of ideological politics, political ideas, and principles among political parties, democracy in Pakistan is ineffective and weak. There is a sort of dictatorship within the so-called democratic political parties of Pakistan, as few families or several personalities have dominated the whole politics of these parties.
They have key positions in political parties and are greatly involved in dominating the decision-making process, irrespective of their worker’s opinions. The majority of political leaders in Pakistani politics are born with a golden spoon in their mouth static with diamond and don’t know the problems and opinions of the common individuals.
Politics and power are all about the harsh realities of life. Unfortunately, politicians in Pakistan haven’t experienced such realities, as they are given everything in plates from their forefathers.
Moreover, the majority of political leaders in Pakistan have no political identity. Political identity comes from ideas and convections which is lacking in Pakistani politics. The political leaders in Pakistan have no convictions, beliefs, and philosophy, and they understand politics as the whole personal gains or pursuing family interests.
A true and genuine personality of a politician is built on the principles, ideas, conventions, and sense of beliefs. He or she should be given a strong influential ideology to which they should strictly stick or even be ready to die for it.
For instance, in US politics, President Joe Biden from his university life is affiliated with the one Democratic Party for more than 50 years. From that same party, he became a member of the city council in 1970 and later on elected as a senator six times.
Similarly, he served as the head of the senate foreign relations committee. In fact, Biden contested presidential elections twice from the same forum and failed both times. But he didn’t leave the party. He worked as a vice president in 2009 from that party and became president of the US in 2020.
Even in India’s politics, there is no absolute ideological-based politics like that of the US and UK, yet there is an ideological distinct line that differentiates the liberal politics of congress from the conservative politics of BJP. In the case of Pakistan, things are completely different, here politics lack ideological identification. Like politicians, people also lack the political will and a sense of ideas, and vote either on the basis of fraternity or caste.
Here, a large number of electables exist that constantly change their political affiliations along with changing political atmosphere. In every political party, one can find a heavy list of such political leaders that adjust themselves in parties according to elections or the position of political parties. In Pakistan, many blame military establishments for poor political infrastructure and suggest non-stop tenures of democratic governments, which they think will definitely bring political awareness and politics of ideas to the system. In my opinion, although interference of establishment in political affairs is one of the major factors in ruining the political environment yet, it is not the only one. Politics of fraternities, personalities, family legacies, and testament are the reasons for the lack of a proper political structure in Pakistan.
Instead of elections and the so-called voting process, there is a serious need for a renaissance in Pakistani politics to get rid of such a flawed system. A sort of social revolution is required like that of French and Europe, which overthrew all aristocracies and social injustice and brought true civil supremacy.

The UK’s Northern Irish Brexit blues

The UK’s Northern Irish Brexit blues

Northern Ireland has now become the focal point of the UK’s post-Brexit crisis.
While the connection between the more than a week of rioting by Protestant “Loyalists” and Brexit may not seem obvious, some, such as the Northern Ireland justice minister, Naomi Long, say the UK Prime Minister Boris“ BoJo” Johnson’s “dishonesty” over the still-to-be-decided Brexit border has exacerbated the situation. The protocol agreed between the EU and the UK fudged the issue of the land border between the UK-member Northern Ireland (NI) and the EU-member Republic of Ireland to NI’s south. The Brexit deal put NI in a distinctive and somewhat anomalous position — legally part of the UK, but at the same time within the EU’s customs regime and part of the single market, with some exceptions, where trade is concerned.
This uncertainty over a nonstandard border between the Protestant-dominated NI and its neighbouring Catholic-majority Irish Republic has made more appealing the prospect of a united Ireland, primarily for economic reasons— such a reunion would confer the huge benefit of direct access to EU markets for NI, without the encumbrances involved in being tied to the UK. NI is currently in the economic doldrums because of uncertainty over the UK-EU border issue. At the same time, the merest prospect of a reunion with its Catholic neighbour alarms a significant part of the Protestant-majority NI.
NI’s Protestants would of course become a minority in a reunified Ireland, and many “Prots”, albeit of an increasingly older generation, would welcome the imposition of a hard border with its neighbour to the south, if only as an ever more redundant and forlorn symbol of NI’s ties to the UK. BoJo was warned repeatedly (by the Biden administration no less) that any Brexit deal which compromised the Good Friday peace agreement between the two parts of Ireland would run the likelihood of jeopardizing that peace. These apprehensions are starting to be realized on the volatile streets of Belfast. BoJo’s grovelling before Donald Trump showed how desperate he is for a UK-US trade deal to help replace trade lost when the UK left the EU. The pro-Irish Biden won’t offer BoJo the sniff of such a deal while the streets of Belfast are burning.
Meanwhile, the EU is taking legal action against the UK after the latter announced it will waive paperwork on food entering NI, an open breach of the Brexit agreement.
A few days ago, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said a fresh referendum on independence would impossible to resist should her party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), secure a majority in next month’s elections for the Scottish parliament. Every opinion poll so far indicates the SNP will win this election. The vagaries of its first-past-the-post electoral system ensure that UK general elections are largely determined by votes cast in England, and playing to the Brexit-inclined English electorate was BoJo’s overwhelming objective in the 2019 election. The English chauvinist BoJo probably won’t lose any sleep over rioting in Belfast, there being for now no real likelihood that his whopping 80-seat parliamentary majority in Westminster (London) will be threatened by unrest in NI. The ex-London mayor BoJo’s view of the political universe has always been somewhat London-centric, except perhaps when it comes to obtaining munificence, legally mind you, from shady Kremlin oligarchs and Gulf Sheikhs.
The violence in Belfast obscures for now the other drawbacks to the UK’s ramshackle Brexit deal. Also contributing to the muddying of the economic impact of Brexit is the economic boost provided by the pent-up demand generated by the Covid lockdowns—with pubs, restaurants, and shops shuttered, and holiday travel vastly curtailed, Brits spent much less than usual, precipitating a retail crash and recession. There are two counter-indications to this rosy scenario. The first is that many Brits lost their jobs during the lockdowns, and these unfortunate individuals, if they obtain post-lockdown employment, will probably be paying-off debt rather than hitting the shopping malls.
The second is that none of the Brexit deal’s structural weaknesses will be removed by a burst of short-term household spending—there are only so many new cars, fridges, and flat-screen TVs a household needs or can afford. The other distraction from any Brexit woes is the death of the queen’s husband, Prince Philip. All the UK mainstream media are giving this event saturation coverage, so much so that a growing number of Brits are turning off their TVs in sheer frustration. The Prince’s death has even eclipsed the Meghan Markle-Harry media drama as the cynosure of attention.
Major events surrounding the royal family—births, marriages, funerals— usually provide a boost for the “king/queen and country” Conservatives. If the Tories receive a helping hand from Philip’s death, Labour will be in deep trouble when local council elections take place in 3 weeks’ time. The Tories have always had an electoral advantage from Ukania’s structurally unbalanced political system. Now with the vaccination “bounce” and the royalist psychodrama (a hint here is provided by the BBC’S description of Philip as “the grandfather of the nation”) providing the Tories with yet another step-up the electoral ladder as “the nation’s grandfather’s” funeral takes place on live TV– there is talk in the media of the lacklustre Labour leader Keir Starmer being deposed from the party leadership should Labour receive its expected trouncing in the polls. To think that in the 21st century, an advanced industrial country could have a fictive “grandfather of the nation” helping undermine the electoral prospects of its main opposition party! In that country, to resort to a cliché, the surreal has now become its real. The Northern Irish have of course experienced English surrealities for centuries, but then they have never really mattered for an England-dominated UK.
The riot has always been their voice, as it is now.
—Counter Punch

Can spirituality stem corruption, as well?

Can spirituality stem corruption, as well?

Chanakya Kautilya’s ideas and his understanding of corruption are very simple. In Arthsashtra, the metaphors he uses fit our society that “It is impossible not to taste the honey or the poison that reaches the tip of the tongue. Likewise, it is impossible for a government servant not to consume a bit of the king’s revenue”. Chanakya also confesses that “just as it is impossible to know when a fish moving in water is drinking it, so it is impossible to find out when people with authority misappropriate money or power”.
Corruption is as old as the account of human activity on this planet. Although it is considered immoral and unethical by law and society, corruption is endemic in many contexts. With corruption becoming a rampant society norm, the culture we all live in becomes dangerous for the social order. With a total loss of shared moral values, a corruption favoring system, and a rat race towards the accumulation of wealth and power, every single person with opportunity gets doing his bid in damaging the society.
For most acts of corruption, there is a decision made by one or more individuals to proceed with an action that is morally and ethically wrong, illegal, and even destructive to others. Those involved in corruption have a strong reason to keep those actions hidden from public view. However, with an active media deeply embedded in our society, it has now become extremely difficult to keep such acts hidden from the public. Corruption also remains a highly sensitive subject in politics; one that often involves a charge, allegation, or suspicion of wrongdoing and defensive posturing by those being investigated. The investigation and prosecution become impossible when the political background adds to any case.
While the corruption watch-dog and government both fail in addressing the issue, both the poor and rich must produce bribes for almost everything in life; to apply for a public sector job, to receive care in a government-run clinic or hospital, to stay out of jail even when innocent of any crime, and even to erect a small one-room house from his pension commutation. It won’t be an exaggeration if said that students also need to bribe their government-paid teachers just to be taught, not to mention for the provision of water, gas, and electricity at home unless a bribe is paid. Corruption continues to sweep away many hopeful signs of progress, and seems to be leading us to a catastrophe of multiple dimensions and unimaginable consequences.
If democracy is valued as a tree of the ideal political system, corruption is the termite feeding at the roots of democracy. Corruption works directly against the very principles and practice of democracy. When the government and public officials fail to serve the public interest at large and are not held accountable for their actions, they lose legitimacy.
The social consequence of corruption has not only a devastating present but has a long-term impact on a nation’s future. Citizens lose or fail to gain trust in their government and the political system, which leads not only to frustration but apathy. In such a failing environment, many of the best trained and brightest minds – those with the means to leave for a better environment–often flee to other countries, contributing to brain-drain, which has further negative consequences for economic growth.
While we can continue to plead our case against corruption, it would be surprising for readers that everyone may not agree with this perspective and advocacy against corruption. There would be many who will try to prove through the empirical argument from an economic cost-benefit perspective that removing additional levels of corruption limits the growth. Some will share their insight into the society suggesting that eliminating all corruption is not in the best interest of society.
Some economists suggest that ending every type of corruption actually harms economic activity. Some part of the money is required to be laundered, and some illegal channels have to remain active. There are many case studies about countries that fit the parameters of poorly functioning governments like ours, where the argument is suggested that corruption is the grease to keep a poor system working.
The argument that corruption is an ointment for the ills of an inefficient government was weak at first but gained strength and popularity over time. Well, it definitely improves the ability of a bureaucrat to speed up a process limited by a hierarchical approval process, where the ability to derail a process requires just one person.
Anti-corruption watch-dogs do have a deterrence, yet religion, culture, and spirituality are the main forces influencing corruption in a society. Although all three are intertwined, research conducted with this perspective has highlighted spirituality enjoying a direct yet inverse relationship with corruption. An additional avenue through which religion may have a direct impact on corruption might remain dependent on the traditional perspectives since different religions interact differently with the state.
Religion and spirituality have a contributing impact on corruption. That is why the world is using religion, spirituality, and its variables to reduce corruption. Life values that are less income-dependent are shaped by inspirations of personal faith, religion, and spirituality, and these, in turn, impact the ethical decisions that determine personal responses to corrupt activities or temptations. Spiritual capital has the potential to transform economic and social structures in society. But on other hand, in our case, exploring the relationship between corruption and religion would be difficult in different ways, since we don’t follow the religion in spirit or conveniently distort its teachings to suit ourselves. That is why we, unfortunately, have scandals to our national credit where we have not spared religion as a sector. Federal ministers found extorting illegal payouts from travel agents involved in fleecing Hajj pilgrims, is a case in point out of a million. Yet, we still need to develop a spiritual capital in society which concerns with the economic and social potential derived from an ethical framework based on a belief system. It values perspectives beyond one’s personal and immediate needs. Spiritual capital is often thought to be derived from religion, but we define religious capital separately which has transforming potential derived from religious beliefs, faith, and practice.
Quaid-Azam noted in a letter written on 6 May 1945 that corruption was a curse in India, especially amongst the so-called educated and intelligentsia, which he though was a class selfish and morally and intellectually corrupt. Quaid wrote further that no doubt this disease was common, but amongst this particular class of Muslims, it was rampant. This is where the challenge lies for our state institutions and government to think for promoting a framework based on the variables of religion, spirituality, and culture to combat corruption. It is said that corruption is like a ball of snow, once it’s set a rolling it must increase. So, let us work collectively on the religious, cultural, and spiritual plane to melt this snowball preventing it from growing at the cost of our progress and prosperity.

Virus restrictions – (The complete lockdown)

Attiya Munawer

The rapid spread of the third and most dangerous wave of coronavirus, the steady increase in the number of patients and the trend of citizens not following the precautionary measures (SOPs), the government has announced more stringent measures in the interest of the people to control this global pandemic. Possible steps are being taken by the governmentin this regard, with the re-imposition of sanctions andfor the first time cases of violation of SOPs are being registered.The third wave of coronavirus is being described as more dangerous and is spreading rapidly, affecting a large number of children as well as adults. Earlier, children were considered safe from coronavirus, so not much attention has been paid to the development of vaccine for them, but now vaccine for children is in the process of preparation. Vaccine doses are not available in Pakistan according to the number of adults. Some countries have gifted vaccines to Pakistan which are in very limited quantities. The government will have to ensure the supply of vaccines as well as preparations.
When the Coronavirus catastrophe came to light last year, many countries were completely shut down, curfew-like sanctions were imposed, and we also had similar lockdown demands, which the Prime Minister continued to oppose. It was stated that the complete lockdown would force many people to go on hunger strike. The government was content with a partial lockdown and in the meanwhile a large amount of money was allocated for the welfare of the unemployed and distributed to the deserving people. Federal and Provincial Governments have made every effort to implement the SOPs issued by the NCOC. There have been complaints of cooperation and non-cooperation in this regard. However, as the situation in Pakistan being better than many other countries, many countries appreciated Pakistan’s initiatives and have achieved remarkable results by partially locked down in the same manner.But it is not requisite that only the steps taken in the past be effective in overcoming this third wave of Coronavirus, a new strategy will have to be devised using the previous steps.
Certainly, the government is doing everything possible to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but what is being done is ‘not necessary, there is no room for further action. The government has experts’ and besides them there are people who can make better suggestions and wherever good opinions come from, it should be used. The Pakistan Medical Association has termed the government’s measures and strategy to control corona virus as inadequate and ineffective. The PMA meeting in Lahore demanded the government to stop the spread of coronavirus, including Lahore, complete lockdown in major cities and implementation of Corona SOPs should be ensured.The government is strictly following SOPs, but is pursuing a policy of avoiding lockdowns, even though the President and the Prime Minister have been affected by the third wave of Coronavirus. Despite being affected, the Prime Minister says that we do not have the resources to close the country but when it comes to the survival of human lives then such tough decisions have to be made.
Both the government and the people seem to be in a state of turmoil. In view of the threat of a third wave of coronavirus, the people want to follow the SOPs, but the economic situation forces them to violate it.
The government is also saying that we cannot afford severe lockdowns, but lockdowns are also being announced in areas with a positive case rate of more than 12%, so there is a need to get out of this dilemma with a clear and unequivocal policy to prevent and combat the third wave of coronavirus.The growing number of corona cases poses a serious threat that the available medical facilities will fail to cope with the large number of patients in large cities like Lahore where already life-saving equipment and facilities are running out, and delays in making quick and drastic decisions by the government could mean a major medical crisis. The government is right in its view that we cannot afford a lockdown, but at a time when the threat of a pandemic has become more alarming than expected, there is no choice but to take very serious and urgent measures. Only a strict lockdown for a few weeks with strict implementation of Coronavirus SOPs can stop the pandemic. The spread of COVID-19 pandemic is also demanding from the government, concerned agencies and the general public that everyone should play their role responsibly for the prevention of this coronavirus because a single failure in the prevention of Corona can be a prelude to great loss.

Saudi Arabia shows region the way on climate action

Saudi Arabia shows region the way on climate action

This region faces climate change threats unlike any other region in the world. Many people have already witnessed the consequences of climate change in their countries. For example, in 2017, Somalia suffered a dro-ught that reduced cereal harvests by 70 percent, leading to livestock deaths and more than 360,000 malnourished children. In 2018, Oman and Yemen were devastated by Cyclone Mekunu, which was the most powerful storm reco-rded in that area’s history. A recent fisheries survey revea-led that more than 85 percent of two key fish species in the Arabian Gulf were depleted. Experts are also sounding the alarm on the potential risks for coastal areas, which are at risk from rising sea levels and floods. Five Arab nations are among the 20 most-polluted countries globally, with three facing high death rates from air pollution.
Additionally, the region is poised to witness a significant temperature increase of 4 degrees Celsius by mid-century, resulting in reduced precipitation, greater erosion, and more droughts. By the end of the century, MENA is expected to face 200 days of extreme heat, when the temperature reaches 50 C, every year. Heatwaves will reach extreme levels, to the point of them being life-threatening.
Middle East is the most water-stressed region in the world, six times above the global average, and has access to less than 2 percent of the world’s renewable water supplies. In fact, 12 MENA countries, including the Gulf states, are classified as among the world’s most water-scarce. Marine ecosystems also face threats from unsustainable fishing practices, global warming and pollution.
Furthermore, two-thirds of the region’s countries have less than 5 percent of land used for arable farming. Due to the region’s hot climate, about 40 percent of cropped lands require irrigation, making it a challenge to sustainably farm. In fact, the region is considered the biggest food importer in the world, with many countries facing significant food trade deficits. Studies estimate that the yearly cost of land degradation is about $9 billion, or between 2 and 7 percent of individual countries’ gross domestic product.
Several factors are exacerbating climate change in the MENA region, such as water scarcity, aridity, stagnant agricultural productivity, population booms, unplanned urbanization, rising poverty rates, long-term conflicts, and the absence of sustainability strategies. Without resilience or mitigation strategies, the region faces a set of challenges that put it in an extremely fragile situation. Most importantly, climate change, if not dealt with, could exacerbate conflict in the region. This scenario played out during the global food crises of 2008 and 2010-2011, when major food-producing countries faced crop failures due to climate change. The sudden instability of production levels, prices and supply chains led to unrest in numerous MENA countries. Without resilience or mitigation strategies, the Middle East faces a set of challenges that put it in an extremely fragile situation.
Unplanned urbanization leaves much room for the mismanagement of energy and water resources, in addition to the exploitation of natural resources. The lack of investment in technologies that boost productivity in agriculture also leaves room for potential famines and rising poverty, especially in rural communities. Furthermore, the lack of sufficient investment in research, development and technologies pertaining to environmental sustainability is also exacerbating the depletion of natural resources. The lack of green finance to support projects in this field remains an obstacle for many investors and inventors. Many industries are reluctant to comply with sustainability standards due to the risk of disrupting the-ir operations, thereby continuing to increase their carbon footprints.
With such dire facts and projections for the region, it is imperative that MENA countries prioritize climate change on their public policy agendas. Saudi Arabia has been leading key environmental sustainability projects in recent years, with ambitious goals to shift the region’s mindset on the economic opportunities and social benefits arising from fighting climate change. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last week launched a game-changing environmental sustainability charter for the Kingdom and the Middle East. The Saudi Arabia Green Initiative and Middle East Green Initiative aim to combat the key climate change threats facing the region. Saudi Arabia will spearhead the largest afforestation project in the world, with the aim of planting 50 billion trees in the region and contributing 5 percent of the global goal to plant 1 trillion trees. Other key projects include reducing the region’s carbon emissions by 60 percent, preserving marine and coastal areas, increasing natural reserves and vegetation cover, combating air pollution, regulating oil production, and accelerating the transition to renewable energy.
Most importantly, the initiatives aim to cement cooperation between Arab countries in an effort to collectively own and address these shared challenges. By investing in sustainability projects and enacting the necessary policies, Gulf countries could unlock more than $2 trillion in economic growth and create more than 1 million jobs by 2030, according to research by global consulting firm Strat-egy&. Furthermore, the initiatives will ensure natural resources are safeguarded and used sustainably. Governments will also become self-sufficient in terms of food and water supplies, so as not to leave their populations in precarious circumstances.
The MENA region is at a pivotal crossroads. It must reform its environmental policies in order to carve out a more sustainable future for its people. Sustainability strategies need to be a priority for every leader in the region.
—Arab News

The reshuffled team must now be left to play out the last overs undisturbed

The captain has rearranged the batting order yet another time. It is perfectly in order. It is the captain’s prerogative to do so. The only worry is that it has come well into his team’s second innings. And that may not be an easy adjustment for the players. With 32 of his mandated 60 months gone, there is no time to waste, much less experiment with. So one hopes this line up will bat for the rest of the innings and pile up much needed runs for the team and for the country. Having said that, my long experience of serving in different courts, for that is how our governments, whether elected or otherwise operate, tells me that a Minister can deliver only as much as he is allowed to deliver. And that means how much confidence is reposed in him by the captain, how much freedom he is allowed in his domain and what kind of a team he is allowed to build to enable him to bat or bowl his very best. And that means security of tenure for those assisting him to deliver. Take for instance the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. It has had at least three heads so far and at least four Secretaries. What miracle could they deliver in such short tenures? During late Benazir Bhutto’s first tenure as Prime Minister, I was a mid level officer but was called by her and asked how did I see her government’s media handling.”Too many cooks Prime Minister”, I replied. Obviously displeased at the reply, she asked the unexpected:”how did Zia do it”?”He had only one person, Gen Mujib ur Rahman”, I replied and added that media management or call it information management was an indivisible whole. You need one captain in that kitchen. Gen Kallu, the then DGISI and Gen Naseerullah Babar, her SAPM, both now late, were sitting with her and listened intently. Nothing however followed except that I was ordered by her to go and report to her spouse who she said was being “unfairly” treated by the media. That is another story. The point I am trying to make is that Fawad Chowdhry is a perfect choice for Info management but he must be left alone to handle the media with a team of his choice. The scores of spokespersons must be his charge, not of the PM’s office. The regular briefing they get from the PM is indeed very useful and must continue but without any compartmentalisation. Same is true of all other Cabinet members. Mr Shaukat Tareen may have all the tricks up his sleeve but the Ministry of Finance will suffer if the Finance Secretary keeps rotating. and the country’s critical revenue generation efforts will suffer if the average tenure of the FBR Chairman is six months. Same is true of all other ministries and organisations. The captain has to set targets and monitor. Leave the rest to the players. Precious time has been lost. Come the new year and the country will be in the election mode. The Captain should be spending half the time outside Islamabad, specially in Lahore, Peshawer and Karachi to personally keep reviewing the targets. In brief, the reshuffled team must now be left to play out the last overs to set a challenging target for 2023.