// archives


This category contains 1288 posts

Saudi Arabia Admits Defeat

“God be with the citizens, we are back to the time of poverty,” wrote Saudi Arabian blogger Rayan al-Shamri on Twitter last week. That’s a bit strong, but he and his fellow citizens are certainly no longer living in the time of plenty. Saudi Arabia is cutting back on all fronts.

The wages of government employees accounted for almost half the the Saudi Arabian government’s spending last year: about $120 billion. And the country’s budget deficit, due to the collapse of the oil price, was $98 billion. So you can see why the government would go looking for some economies in the public sector.

About two-thirds of employed Saudi citizens have public sector jobs, many of which require them to do little beyond showing up on a fairly regular basis. It’s the unwritten contract that the absolute monarchy made with its citizens decades ago, when money was not a problem: you keep quiet politically, and we will subsidise your lifestyle handsomely. But the money isn’t there any more.

A royal decree on 23 September announced that government ministers’ salaries would be cut by 20 percent. Lower-ranking civil servants will have their pay frozen and their overtime payments and annual leave capped. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has announced a plan to cut the public sector to only 40 percent of the working population by 2020. (In the United States it’s 7 percent.)

If this policy sounds a little less than drastic, that’s because the Saudi regime doesn’t dare cut harder for fear of a popular backlash. It cannot afford to let the “time of poverty” come back, and citizens who are used to being coddled and subsidised will define anything short of their current living standard as “poverty”.

So if the regime can’t get its budget spending down much, then it had better start getting the oil price back up before it runs out of money entirely and the roof falls in. This requires an about-turn in the market strategy it has followed for the past two years.

The Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) only accounts for 40 percent of the world’s oil exports, which is marginal for a cartel that seeks to control the world oil price. Moreover, some poorer OPEC members regularly pump more oil than their quotas allow. So Saudi Arabia’s traditional role, as OPEC’s biggest member, was to cut production and get the world price back up when there was a glut of oil on the market.

When the oil price collapsed two years ago, however, Saudi Arabia didn’t do that. The regime was worried that the rapid rise in American oil production, mainly due to fracking, would ultimately destroy OPEC’s ability to set the price of oil. Its response was to pump oil flat out and let the price stay low, hoping that this would drive the high-cost US fracking industry out of business.

That was a foredoomed strategy, because the US government would even subsidise its fracking industry, if it had to, rather than give up on the dream of “energy independence” (self-sufficiency in oil production). In the event, that wasn’t necessary: even with the oil price at rock bottom, American oil production actually grew last year – and by now the OPEC producers are facing budgetary disaster.

At the OPEC summit in Algiers last Wednesday, Saudi Arabia publicly abandoned its strategy. OPEC will cut production by 700,000 barrels a day, starting next month. Saudi Arabia, as usual, will take the biggest share in the cuts – and if this round of cuts doesn’t get the price back up, there will presumably be a further round early in the new year.

The Saudis have even agreed that Iran, their great strategic rival in the Gulf region, can increase its production while everybody else in OPEC is cutting. (Iran, frozen out of the market by the American embargo for so long, has been claiming its old OPEC quota back now that the embargo has been lifted, and until last week Saudi Arabia was resisting its demand.)

A number of things are not yet clear about the new strategy. In particular, how to share the pain of production cuts between the OPEC members has not yet been worked out, so the market is not yet persuaded that these cuts are real.

The world oil price jumped 7 percent on first news of the OPEC decision, but is now back down to about the level it was at before the OPEC announcement. OPEC’s promises about cuts have been broken before. But this time they probably will be kept, because a lot of the producers are truly desperate for a higher price.

So, then, three conclusions. One, Saudi Arabia’s ability to set the price of oil, and OPEC’s power in general, is seriously impaired. Two, the oil price is going back up over the next year or so, though probably not beyond $70 or $80 a barrel. And three, that is really a good thing, because we need a higher oil price to drive the shift out of carbon fuels and into renewables.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“About…more”; and “The Saudis…demand”)

Antibiotic Apocalyse

I have never advocated that people who routinely feed low doses of antibiotics to livestock should be executed without trial. That would be too harsh, too irrevocable. There should be fair trials, and fines for a first offence, and prison for a second. Only habitual offenders should face the death penalty.

But first, there has to be a law. At the moment, it isn’t even illegal in most countries.

At the United Nations last week, every single member country signed a declaration that recognises the rise in antibiotic resistance as a threat to the entire enterprise of modern medicine. It’s a start, but that’s all it is – and time is running out.

“The emergence of bacterial resistance is outpacing the world’s capacity for antibiotic discovery,” World Health Organisation director-general Margaret Chan warned the meeting. “With few replacement products in the pipeline, the world is heading toward a post-antibiotic era in which common infections will once again kill.”

The declaration urges countries to cut back on the use of existing antibiotics in order to preserve their effectiveness, to make better use of vaccines instead, and to spend more money on developing new antibiotics. It doesn’t put any actual money on the table, however, and it doesn’t even make make it illegal to pump “sub-therapeutic” doses of antibiotics into
farm animals. (It can’t. National governments have to do that.)

I was not really recommending the death penalty for feeding antibiotics to livestock. That was just for dramatic effect. But the reckless misuse of antibiotics is rapidly destroying their effectiveness.

A recent study by Public Health England found that the proportion of campylobacter bacteria that are resistant to ciproflaxin, the standard antibiotic in cases of food poisoning, has risen from 30 percent to 48 percent in just the past ten years. If we don’t stop the rot we are heading back to the 19th century in terms of our ability to control infections. Even minor wounds and simple operations will carry the risk of death.

The same goes for communicable diseases. In the 19th century tuberculosis was the biggest killer of young and middle-aged adults in Europe and America. With the discovery of streptomycin in 1944, isoniazid in 1952, and rifamptin in the 1970s it ceased to be a major health problem. But now the drug resistance has grown so great that at least 190,000 people worldwide died of tuberculosis last year.

The problem of bacterial resistance has been understood for a long time. If the antibiotic kills all the harmful bacteria it targets in the person or animal it is given to, then no resistance develops. But if it only kills off the weaker ones because it was a very low dosage, or because the course of drugs was not finished, then the surviving bacteria will be the most resistant ones.

They will pass their resistance on to all their descendants, who will undergo similar episodes of winnowing out the the less resistant ones many more times, and gradually the resistance grows. The only way to keep antibiotics effective, therefore, is to use them as rarely as possible, and to make sure that they kill off all the target bacteria when they are used.

We are not doing this. Doctors over-prescribe antibiotics, often giving them to people who do not have bacterial infections just to get them out of their offices (and sometimes getting a kickback from drug companies for each prescription they write). And nobody makes sure that patients complete the course of treatment even though they already feel better.

Much worse is the widespread practice of giving regular low doses of antibiotics to cattle, pigs and chickens, partly as a means of controlling the spread of disease in their cramped and insanitary living conditions, but mostly because it makes them put weight on more quickly. Getting them to the slaughterhouse a week or two faster is money in the hand.

This insanely greedy and reckless practice is now banned in the European Union, but it is still commonplace in China and the United States. In fact, 80 percent of American antibiotic production goes to farm animals who are not ill, and as intensive farming methods spread to developing countries so does antibiotic use in agriculture.

This has to stop. So does over-prescribing by doctors in developed countries, and the over-the-counter sale of antibiotics without prescriptions that is so normal in many developing countries. “We are now staring at overwhelming evidence of rampant antibiotic resistance, across all ages, all over the country,” said Dr Vinod Paul, head of pediatrics at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi.

We also need a whole new generation of antibiotics to replace those that are hopelessly compromised, which requires persuading large pharaceutical companies to change their research priorities. (They make more money by developing new drugs that address the chronic health problems of the affluent, so we’ll have to subsidise them.)

It all has to be done, and it has to start now. “On current trends,” said Dr. Chan at the UN, “a common disease like gonorrhea may become untreatable. Doctors facing patients will have to say, ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do for you’.”
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“A recent…year”)

The Next Secretary-General: No Charisma Required

It’s not an election, it’s a Selection. And although all the countries in the United Nations General Assembly have equal rights, some are more equal than others.

Ban Ki-moon retires at the end of this year, and it’s time for the United Nations to choose a new Secretary- General. By the end of this year’s session of the General Assembly, ends in early October, we will know who it is. Which raises two questions: how do they make
the choice, and why should anybody care?

The secretary-general of the United Nations is, in some senses, the highest official on the planet, but the selection process is hardly democratic. In fact, it has traditionally been a process as shrouded in secrecy as a papal conclave.

It is the Security Council’s fifteen members who pick the candidate, although all 192 members of the General Assembly then get to vote on their choice. And even on the Security Council, it’s only the views of the five permanent members (the P5) that really count, because each of the five great powers has a veto and the others don’t.

This is why people with strong opinions and a record of taking decisive action don’t get the job. That sort of person would be bound to annoy one of the P5 great powers – Russia, Britain, China, France and the United States – or even all of them one after the other, so the entire system is designed to prevent a maverick with big ideas from slipping through.

The secretary-general must never come from one of the great powers (that might give him access to enough resources to make a nuisance of himself), and the successful candidate should not be charismatic. The final choice is usually a “safe pair of hands”, some blameless diplomat from a middle or smaller power like the incumbent, a career diplomat from South Korea who ranks 32nd on the Forbes list of The World’s Most Powerful People.

Candidates therefore tend to be relative unknowns. If you look through the current list of candidates, for example, the only two names you might recognise, even if you are a political junkie, are former New Zealand prime minister, Helen Clark, now Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, and Antonio Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal and later UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

But who is Irina Bokova, Natalia Gherman, or Igor Luksic? They are, in that order, a former acting foreign minister of Bulgaria, the current foreign minister of Moldova, and a former foreign minister of Montenegro. Well, all right, Bokova is also the current director-general of UNESCO, but you still didn’t know her name, did you?

Why so many Eastern Europeans (eight of the twelve candidates come from that region)? Because it’s Eastern Europe’s “turn” this time. That region always missed out until the end of the Cold War, because the countries of Eastern Europe were effectively under Soviet control and therefore contravened the unwritten “no sec-gen from a great power” rule.

You might also ask why Eastern Europe is a whole separate region at all, given that its total population from Poland to Bulgaria is less than the population of Bangladesh, Brazil, Indonesia or Pakistan. Same reason: it used to be seen as a separate region because it was occupied by Soviet troops and most of its governments were ultimately controlled from Moscow. History looms very large at the UN.

There is some progress. Half of this year’s candidates are female, and there is a strong feeling around the UN that it is high time for a woman to become secretary-general. There is also an attempt this time to make the process more “transparent”, but it is otherwise unchanged. The Security Council still comes up with a single candidate who doesn’t offend any of the great powers, and the General Assembly then rubber-stamps its choice.

It’s basically a civil service job, suitable for persons of cautious disposition. How could it be otherwise? You only get what you pay for, and no great power is yet ready to pay the price in terms of its own sovereignty of having a powerful independent leader at the United Nations.

What would be the point of choosing such a leader anyway, so long as the UN has no military forces or financial resources of its own? It would only lead to frustration: the secretary-general can’t act independently of the will of the great powers because they designed it that way.

The job is still worth doing, and there is never a shortage of applicants. The secretary-general can speak out as the conscience of the world when there are massive violations of human rights, and once in a while she can actually organise a peace-keeping mission to stop the horrors (if all the great powers agree).

And she becomes, by virtue of her position, the most striking symbol of that more cooperative, less violent world that most politicians, diplomats and ordinary citizens actually aspire to. But we are still a very long way from the promised land.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Why…UN”)

Who Would ISIS Vote For?

“Hillary Clinton’s weakness while she was Secretary of State has emboldened terrorists all over the world to attack the US, even on our own soil,” wrote Donald Trump on Facebook after the bombing in New York on Saturday. “They are hoping and praying that Hillary Clinton becomes president, that they can continue their savagery and murder.”

Mrs. Clinton replied on Monday by branding the Republican presidential candidate a “recruiting sergeant for the terrorists.” Indeed, in an interview on Israeli television this month, Mrs. Clinton said Islamic State was praying for a Trump victory. There’s clearly a lot of praying going on, but whose victory are the jihadi fanatics really praying FOR?

There’s no point in asking them, because they are likely to lie about it . At least half of them are smart enough to realise that if Islamist extremists openly express a preference for one candidate, American voters will tend to back the other. (Tactical voting is a time-honoured practice, but it does encourage tactical lying.)

Besides, it’s really hard for the opinion pollsters to contact a statistically valid sample of the fighters of Islamic State by phone. We’re going to have to figure out their views without their help – but happily, this is not very hard to do. Their weapon is terrorism, and there is a clear, universally acknowledged doctrine on how that weapon works.

Well, it was universally acknowledged in the 1970s and the 1980s, when the world was littered with revolutionary movements using terrorist methods. The leaders themselves wrote about how terrorism served their goals, and a generation of Western military leaders studied how best to combat it. Unsurprisingly, they came to the same conclusions about how terrorism actually worked – and that it didn’t work very well.

So the revolutionary movements either won (occasionally) or else gradually faded away. The generation of Western military leaders who had actually confronted terrorism and learned how to respond to it got old and retired, and the knowledge was lost.

Some truly stupid things were said and done in the first years after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. “They are attacking us because they hate our values!”, for example, or “We’ll invade Iraq and root them out!” (There were no terrorists in Iraq before the invasion.) But a new generation of Western soldiers has finally grasped how terrorism works. The terrorists themselves, of course, knew it all along.

Three basic facts about terrorism. First, it is the weapon of choice for the weak, because it does not require a large army, sophisticated weapons or a lot of money.

Secondly, without those assets, terrorists must not engage in frontal assaults and stand-up battles against powerful opponents (usually governments) who do have them.

Thirdly, it can therefore only succeed by tricking those more powerful forces into doing things that really serve the terrorists’ purposes.

What is the ultimate goal of Islamic State and similar jihadi groups? Obviously, it is to come to power in various parts of the Muslim world. If they ever manage to become a government they may develop further ambitions (for then they would have a large army and lots of money), but taking power is the crucial first step.

Clearly the terrorists do not have mass support in their own countries, or they would already be in power. In order to build that mass support – it doesn’t have to be majority support, but they do need a lot of people behind them – they need a villain that will push people into their arms.

That villain can be either the government that currently rules the country, or a foreign power that invades the country, but in either case it must be provoked into behaving very badly. Only torture chambers and/or cluster bombs will make the mass of the population so desperate that they turn to the revolutionaries for help.

To get the torture and the bombing going, the target government must become so frightened and enraged that it starts using them on a large scale. That’s what the terrorism is actually for: to make governments over-react and behave very badly. Then the terrorists might actually build enough support to win.

Terrorism is not just blind hatred. It is a technique used by ruthless but intelligent leaders with coherent strategies and clear political goals, and the violence is never “senseless”. Bin Laden’s strategy in carrying out the 9/11 attacks, for example, was to provoke the United States into invading Muslim countries.

It worked, and the invasions gave a huge boost to the popularity of the jihadi movement. Indeed, Islamic State and its clones could never have gained power without those invasions.

All terrorism is a kind of political jiu-jitsu, in which a relatively weak group tries to goad a far stronger force into doing something very big and stupid. Terrorism doesn’t just thrive on over-reaction. It cannot succed without it.

So now ask yourself: which of the American presidential candidates is more likely to over-react to a terrorist provocation?

Okay, so now you know whose victory the terrorists are really praying for.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Well…lost”)