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Three strongmen and their battle for the Middle East

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Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mohammed bin Salman have a lot in common. The Russian, Turkish and Saudi leaders are all nationalists with regional ambitions. They are autocrats who have centralised power and have been ruthless with domestic political opposition. And they are all risk-takers, who are happy to use military force.

These three strongmen are also believers in the diplomacy of personal relations. Like mafia dons, they can be best friends one day and bitter enemies the next. That matters because their often conflicting interests are fomenting conflict across a swath of territory from the Middle East to north Africa and the Caucasus. If their rivalries get out of hand, civilians will suffer.

The relationship between Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan is particularly peculiar. The presidents of Russia and Turkey have backed conflicting sides in three regional conflicts — Syria, Libya and now Nagorno-Karabakh. At times, they have clashed directly — the Turks shot down a Russian plane over Syria in 2015. Turkish troops were killed in bombing raids in Syria, earlier this year, by Moscow-backed Syrian forces.

Yet the Russian and Turkish leaders retain a wary friendship. To the outrage of its Nato allies, Turkey chose to buy S-400 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia. When Mr Erdogan was almost overthrown in a 2016 coup attempt, Mr Putin quickly offered support, while the US remained silent.

The reason that the two presidents instinctively understand each other is linked to why they clash with each other. Both are anti-US autocrats, seeking to expand their influence into the power vacuum created by a reduced US role in the Middle East. They are willing to act, while the EU hovers on the sidelines. Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan are not the only ambitious, strongman leaders jostling for influence in their shared neighbourhood. A third key player is Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the crown prince and de facto leader of Saudi Arabia — who is much more closely aligned with Washington.

The willingness to use violence — at home and abroad — links all three. Mr Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, intervened in Syria in 2015 and has authorised a range of intelligence black-ops, including allegedly the attempted murder of Alexei Navalny, his most dangerous domestic political opponent. Prince Mohammed has launched a war in Yemen, blockaded Qatar and has taken responsibility as Saudi leader for the 2018 murder of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, although he denies personal involvement.

Mr Erdogan has sent Turkish troops into Syria and Libya and is risking another military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean with Greece — while supplying military support to Azerbaijan, in its struggle with Armenia. At home, the Turkish president increasingly locks up political opponents, journalists and civil-rights activists.

To some extent, these three leaders are engaged in a zero-sum struggle. The Turkish-backed government of Libya is battling Saudi and Russian-backed rebels. Turkey’s support for Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, and its closeness to Iran, enrages Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi-Russian relationship is more complex. Mr Putin helped to rehabilitate Prince Mohammed, after the Khashoggi murder, with an infamous high-five at a G20 summit in 2018. But the Russian and Saudi leaders fell out badly over oil prices this year.

By and large, however, the three leaders have been able to manage their conflicts. Russia and Turkey may be on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war — but their most urgent priorities are compatible. For Mr Erdogan, it is stopping the establishment of a secure Kurdish enclave within Syria. For Russia, it is preventing the fall of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

But these carefully balanced accommodations can easily come unstuck. After two weeks of fighting, the Russians brokered a ceasefire in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. But the peace is fragile, there are already reports of fresh fighting and, while Turkey is wholeheartedly behind Azerbaijan, Russia has a defence treaty with Armenia. Moscow is unlikely to tolerate the long-term expansion of Turkish influence on former Soviet Union territory.

All three leaders also have delicate balances to strike between foreign intervention and domestic stability. At the time of Mr Putin’s Crimea annexation, Russians joked that they were faced with a choice between the television and the refrigerator. The fridge was empty, but the TV was full of news of exciting military victories. Mr Putin’s popularity soared after his Crimean success. But, as the economy has struggled and nationalist fervour has subsided, he has faced new, fridge-driven discontent.

Mr Erdogan faces a similar trade-off. Turkey’s military adventures are bolstering his popularity at a time of economic weakness. But small wars overseas can eventually be seen as a waste of resources, particularly if they start to go wrong. Prince Mohammed has a version of the same dilemma. His decision to launch a war in Yemen excited many young Saudis. But a quick victory has not materialised and the Saudi economy is suffering from low oil prices.

As their economies struggle, all three leaders need more than ever to demonstrate strength overseas. The danger of clashes between them is rising.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

Follow Gideon Rachman with myFT and on Twitter





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Hong Kong’s Olympic successes expose deep political fissures

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Hong Kong politics updates

The Hong Kong Olympics team’s future as a separate entity from that of mainland China is secure, the territory’s Games chief Timothy Fok said, despite political tensions exposed by his squad’s historic achievements over the past week.

Siobhan Haughey, a Hong Kong swimmer, won a second silver medal in Tokyo on Friday, cementing the Games as the city’s most successful ever. Fencer Cheung Ka-long won the city’s first gold medal since its 1997 handover from the UK in the foil event.

But the euphoria over their victories quickly became politicised when crowds in the territory celebrating Cheung’s gold booed and shouted “We are Hong Kong” over the Chinese national anthem, which played as he accepted his medal on the podium in Tokyo this week.

Police have launched an investigation and said on Friday they had arrested a 40-year-old person, who also waved Hong Kong’s colonial-era flag at the scene, for insulting the national anthem.

The display of resistance was a stark reminder of a strong lingering undercurrent of discontent in the Asian financial centre, despite a crackdown on dissent by Beijing after anti-government protests in 2019.

China last year imposed a tough new security law last year on Hong Kong, with the first person to be convicted under the legislation, a former waiter who rode a motorbike into a police line last year, given a nine-year jail term on Friday.

But Fok, president of the national Olympic committee of Hong Kong, said he had urged athletes to ignore the controversies. There was an understanding in China that Hong Kong had “a separate identity” to the mainland and there were no plans to integrate the city’s team with that of its bigger neighbour, he said.

“They have [1bn] people, we only have 7m. I am very proud with this new encouragement and success. Sport will be a very important part of the development of Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong authorities are keen to demonstrate the crackdown has not had an impact on the city’s vibrancy. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said last week that arts and culture in the city were “booming” and there had been no weakening of people’s freedoms.

The city was promised a high degree of autonomy and freedom of expression after 1997. This autonomy was symbolised by Hong Kong’s right to have its own Olympics team, although it was also agreed that China’s national anthem would be played at medal ceremonies for the territory’s athletes.

Shushu Chen, a lecturer in sport policy at the University of Birmingham, said the mainland had shown significant support for elite sport development in Hong Kong

“I don’t think the Chinese government will advocate in future Olympics that Hong Kong athletes should be integrated under the main PRC flag,” she said. “That will lose the sense of identity of Hong Kong . . . I don’t think that is what the Chinese government is trying to do.”

Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole delegate to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the permanent body of China’s parliament, said that any change was unlikely under “one country, two systems”, the Chinese government policy governing Hong Kong’s autonomy from the mainland since the handover.

Hong Kong’s only other gold medallist, windsurfer Lee Lai-shan, accepted her medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games under the British Hong Kong colonial flag as “God Save The Queen” played.

Cheung, whose parents were both Chinese national league basketball players, is a cat lover who often posts pictures of his family’s American shorthair Zimba. “It means a lot to show to the world we can do it,” he said. “We are not only a city. We can fight for victory.”

While Cheung made no political comments after his win, pro-democracy groups were quick to seize on the victory. During the 2019 protests, anti-government demonstrators sang their own anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” in shopping malls. After Cheung’s ceremony, netizens substituted the Chinese anthem for the song in viral videos showing Cheung on the Tokyo podium.

Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing camp also generated controversy when a lawmaker Nicholas Muk criticised one of the territory’s top badminton players for wearing a black T-shirt — a colour favoured by the 2019 protesters — without displaying the Hong Kong flag.

After Muk accused him of supporting the pro-democracy movement, the player, Angus Ng Ka-Long, wore a different shirt to try to calm things down as he also came under attack from Chinese netizens.

Even though he was the eighth seed in the men’s singles competition, Ng was beaten by Guatemalan shuttler Kevin Cordon, who was ranked 59th, leaving many supporters blaming Muk for distracting Ng.

“It is probably not true that there was no impact. I have been trying hard to calm down and I want to focus on the competition,” Ng said after losing. “But how can I forget it completely.”



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Ben Okri: rediscovering a 4,000-year-old poem

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When the world began to close down 17 months ago, I was filled with a sense of foreboding about what would befall the life of the spirit, and wrote a heartfelt appeal in this paper urging the world not to forget the arts. I maintained that art at its best reveals to us the fullness of what it means to be human.

At the time I feared the lights would go out all over the world and all forms of culture would sink under the assault of the pandemic. But it soon turned out that we could not live without art and culture after all. It was just that art had to find new ways to reach us, new ways to exist, and artists had to find new ways of making art. For many artists, their homes became their studios. Zoom replaced travel, and virtuality replaced intimacy.

But there is something matchless about live theatre. Nothing quite comes close to the mysterious vitality of living actors and an audience throbbing with anticipation and immersed in the entanglements of a story. And so this weekend something remarkable will happen. After a year and a half of not practising their art in person, a group of actors will be staging at the Young Vic my new play, Changing Destiny. It is set in ancient Egypt and is based on a nearly 4,000-year-old poem called “The Tale of Sinuhe”.

Ashley Zhangazha in rehearsal for Ben Okri’s ‘Changing Destiny’ © Marc Brenner

The play began its life before lockdown, but the writing of it and the intricacies of production took place during it. Most of the process happened on Zoom. Staff had to work from home and the theatre struggled for funding. A curious early obstacle was the shortage of black male actors, who were unprecedentedly in such high demand. Fortunately, we found the excellent Ashley Zhangazha, who had played Ike Turner in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. He plays alongside the wonderful Joan Iyiola, a veteran of the Young Vic.

The play began as a classic three-act play in the Greek tradition, then was compressed into a two-hander. We wanted this play, based on one of the most popular poems in the ancient world, to be as close as possible to the oldest form of storytelling on the stage, where the play is made up as much from the imagination of the audience as from the suggestive performance of the actors. We wanted an ancient form of theatre, the campfire theatre, alongside the most modern of technological innovations.

But producing a play during lockdown proved quite a challenge. And it took nerves of steel from the intrepid artistic director of the Young Vic, Kwame Kwei-Armah, to manage all the contingencies and devise the most Covid-free environment for the actors to rehearse and the theatre to function. Going into rehearsal required a rigorous daily health check. The rehearsal area was completely sealed off.

The pressure on the actors was enormous. There are only two of them, one male, the other female, playing 100 roles. They rotate the playing of the central role of Sinuhe. This makes it a gender-transcendent performance. To experience the play fully, you have to see it twice, to see what happens when Sinuhe is a man and then a woman.


Joan Iyiola in rehearsals for ‘Changing Destiny’ © Marc Brenner

I first became interested in “The Tale of Sinuhe” as part of my abiding curiosity about the ancient Egyptian civilisation and its relationship to Africa. It seems people have managed to mentally separate Egypt from the rest of the continent. Now, perhaps, is the time for Egypt to be dealt with as part of the broken history of the continent.

But my interest in ancient Egypt is also mythical and spiritual. The poem of Sinuhe is a literary text but also belongs to the mural tradition of Egyptian art. The scribe who copied it had it painted in his tomb. It is a visual poem, a performance to death and immortality.

A casual encounter with Kwei-Armah, who is himself a fastidious playwright, at an event celebrating Nelson Mandela through his prison letters, gave the second impetus for the writing of the play. We were surprised at our mutual fascination for this now little-known Egyptian poem.

After the final draft was accepted, Kwame decided early that he wanted Changing Destiny to be the first play the Young Vic performs as it comes out of lockdown, a play that matches the strangeness of emerging from the long period of isolation with the magic and strangeness of an ancient world. But it has proved as difficult coming out of lockdown as going into it. The production suffered cancellations and postponements and has been a lesson in bringing back theatre in historic times.

From the beginning, though, we were not interested in theatricalising the poem, but in finding an authentic political and ritual drama from it. No play about ancient times can be written that is not a play about today. We can only understand the past through the present. It is the only portal we have. Conversely, we can only understand the present through the past.

The Sinuhe poem reveals profound political tensions in ancient Egypt. It is an indirect account of the assassination of Pharaoh Amenemhat I; and of Sinuhe, implicated in the plot, who had to flee to foreign lands. Contained in the poem are archetypes that have haunted the human imagination.

Prefigured within it are preoccupations with home and exile, with identity, the unknowability of human motives, and those eternal issues of freedom. Right at the heart of the poem is the problem of power, of what to do when an autocratic regime is destroying the fabric of society. Hard as this is to believe, those pyramid-makers had their fingers on the pulse of things that would consume us 4,000 years later.

Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic and director of ‘Changing Destiny’ © Marc Brenner

Ancient Egypt has been marginalised in the story of literature. That ought to change. The tendency in the west has been to begin with the Greeks as if nothing much had been written before. But the writing of Herodotus and Plutarch bears witness to the Egyptian roots of Greek culture, to the notion that the Greeks got some of their gods from Egypt. There is even a fruitful tradition that contends that the ancient Egyptian mystery plays were the real progenitors of Greek theatre.

There are hints in the Greek myths of importations from other cultures. Dionysus has an Asiatic tinge. Many cultures inform the pantheon of Greek gods. In order to overcome enduring Eurocentric tendencies, we need to go back to the ancients to see how myths and mysteries spread from one centre to another. It should cure us of the notion that the roots of western civilisation come from only one place.

The migration of gods and cults and peoples is hard-wired into the story of civilisation itself. “The Tale of Sinuhe”, for this reason, ought to induce in us cultural humility and a sense of wonder. It ought to be widely taught in schools and be as well known as Homer’s Odyssey or The Arabian Nights.

Writing Changing Destiny, I wanted to bathe the audience in this eternal stream. I wanted to divert some of its waters into these divisive times. Whether it be the cruel treatment of migrants at American borders, or the European seas alive with the ghosts of migrants who tried to make it across, or the new immigration bill recently published by the British government, this ancient Egyptian poem, now made into a play, hints that the issue of immigration demands a new way to look at the human story and the human spirit. Not one that demonises out of fear, but one whose understanding comes from the long perspective about the mystery of the human estate.

To August 21, youngvic.org

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China reaffirms plans to beef up oversight of foreign listings

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Chinese politics & policy updates

Beijing reiterated its intention to strengthen oversight of overseas listings on Friday, capping a volatile week during which contradictory policy signals rocked the share prices of Chinese companies.

At its mid-year meeting, the Chinese Communist party’s politburo stated its determination to “improve” the regulatory framework for companies listing shares overseas. It was the first time the politburo, comprised of the party’s top 25 officials, had specifically addressed the issue.

Chinese regulators have been angered by Didi Chuxing’s decision to press ahead with a $4.4bn initial public offering in New York last month, despite their concerns about the ride-hailing group’s data security practices.

Senior party and government officials have subsequently vowed stricter oversight of overseas listings, which will now require clearance from the country’s internet regulator. Didi’s shares have plunged as other Chinese companies cancelled or delayed plans to list outside of the country.

Investor confidence in Chinese tech companies was further dented on Monday when Beijing revealed draconian new rules for the country’s booming private education sector. The share prices of New York-listed tutoring companies collapsed, after which a senior securities regulator sought to reassure financial executives that Beijing was not seeking to ‘“decouple” Chinese companies from US and other overseas markets.

The comments by Fang Xinghai, vice-chair of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, on Wednesday helped stop a broader sell-off of Chinese shares. But they were not enough to prevent a more than 20 per cent monthly decline in US-listed Chinese tech companies.

Chinese officials have shown no sign of reining in their crackdown of the country’s largest tech groups for alleged violations of monopoly and data security laws.

Separately, China’s transportation ministry on Friday signalled an intensification of the measures against Didi and other ride-hailing groups. It said in a statement that companies in the sector must improve compliance over network and data security management to better protect customers’ personal data. Stronger supervision of antitrust practices, as well as improved rights of workers in the sector, was also needed, it said.

The statement did not name specific companies but noted that the government’s transport sector oversight is being directed by President Xi Jinping.

The Chinese government is conscious that the campaigns against tech and education companies could dent already fragile private sector confidence as the government tries to boost slowing economic growth.

Liu He, a Chinese vice-premier and the country’s top economic and financial official, sought to reassure representatives of small and medium-sized enterprises on July 27, acknowledging that they were the “main source” of employment. “The Chinese economy will do well only if SMEs do well,” he added.

While China has rebounded strongly from the Covid-19 pandemic, officials have been concerned by slowing infrastructure investment — an essential driver of the world’s second-largest economy. The politburo suggested it would encourage more fiscal spending and local government debt issuance to accelerate economic growth.

The Chinese government has also struggled to contain a new outbreak of Covid-19’s Delta variant, which has spread across the country from an airport in eastern China.

Additional reporting by Edward White in Seoul



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