Hello, welcome to the Week that Was… in which ambition held centre stage.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambition was to go back, in order to safeguard the future. He wants to transform the Kingdom. But in order to do so is demanding a return to ‘“moderate open Islam” of the type he says existed in the Kingdom before 1979. This was a reference to the Iranian revolution which helped accelerate the spread of radical Islamist ideas across the Muslim world. “Saudi Arabia was not like this before 1979″ said the Crown Prince. “We want to go back to what we were, We want to live a normal life …. coexist and contribute to the world.” This is interesting stuff – because although there is the implicit reference to Iran in the date, a broader interpretation of his words is that he is also referring to the more extreme elements of the Whahabbi interpretation of the faith practised in Saudi Arabia and exported around the world partially as a reaction to the Iranian Shia fundementalism which emerged from the Iranian Revolution.
His ideas about modernity are tied in with Saudi Arabia’s ‘ Vision 2030’ project for which there was another ambitious announcement this week. The Crown Prince unveiled the $500 billion NEOM project to build a megacity in northwestern Saudi Arabia as part of an independent economic zone stretching into Egypt and Jordan.
NEOM? It’s from the Latin word — “neo” meaning new, while the M comes from the Arabic word for future ‘Mostaqbal’. And the city? Starting from scratch means you can build in new technology in a manner impossible in old cities. This means fully automated services powered from renewables. It is expected that there may be as many robots in the city as people. It will sit at a global trade choke point, and at the centre of aviation routes. Success will mean Saudi Arabia a world leader in developing cities of the future.
Speaking of which, Saudi Arabia also invested one billion dollars in Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. The money will go to his space companies including Virgin Galactic which intends to fly tourists to space. In all of this success is not guaranteed, the difficulties are huge – but so is the ambition.
Across the border in Iraq there was a curbing of ambition. The Kurdish leadership offered to freeze its declaration of independence. In Baghdad Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said he would not accept anything less than its cancellation… there may be more armed clashes over territory in the north.
This week a number of things happened in the Korean crisis. Individually they didn’t make headlines, but taken together – they should. President Trump sent a 3rd aircraft carrier group into the Pacific. The Americans say the deployment of the USS Nimitz was previously scheduled. That may be true, but either way, they now have vastly more firepower off Korea than usual. What else? The US Military was reporting to be looking at its plans to evacuate US citizens from South Korea, just looking of course, but letting it be known they were looking. The Americans, South Koreans and Japanese conducted joint missile defence drills, the US Airforce is preparing to put its nuclear armed B52 bombers back on 24 hour alert for the first time in 25 years, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford arrived in South Korea on Thursday.
Oh, and the North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Phil said his leader, Kim Jong Un, wasn’t kidding about conducting an atmospheric thermonuclear test. That’s ambitious.
The rerun Kenyan presidential election failed to take the country forward. The incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, will probably be declared the winner this coming week, but with the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, boycotting the vote – turnout was at just 33 per cent – this is hardly a vote of confidence, or a mandate. Thousands of polling stations were closed because of fears for staff safety and there were clashes between opposition supporters and the police. The election underlines the deep fissures in Kenya, a society which tends to vote along ethnic lines. Kenyatta is from the Kikuyu people, the largest group in the country, other communities including the Luo, from which Odinga hails, fear being dominated.
Catalonia? We moved into uncharted territory. The Catalan government declared independence on Friday. The Spanish government responded by implementing Article 155 of the constitution imposing direct rule on the region and announcing a snap election. This will all require local officials, including the police chiefs, to co-operate, and that might include arresting people. If they don’t – they face arrest. On Saturday afternoon the Catalan leader, Carlos Puigdemont, issued a defiant response to Madrid vowing to build “a free country”. “We must do so” he said, “resisting repression and threats, without ever abandoning, at any time, civic and peaceful conduct,” Now we wait to see if there is the ambition on all sides to avoid violence.