The World Today for September 01, 2016


From Oil to Starbucks

While countries in North Africa and the Levant have seen much turmoil since the Arab Spring kicked off in 2011, Saudi Arabia has been a regional exception, seemingly impervious to the internal strains that have ripped apart the societies of Syria, Iraq and Yemen – and others to a lesser extent.

But the desert kingdom’s reign as a pillar of stability in a highly volatile region might be coming to an end, some say. The worldwide collapse of oil prices is prompting slow but major changes in Saudi Arabian society.

As oil revenues have fallen, the Saudi government has moved to implement austerity measures, cutting welfare programs, attacking bloat in the public sector and curtailing infrastructure projects while delaying payments for contractors: That has hit sectors like construction that employ millions of low-paid workers.

As a result, many of these workers, who hail from India, Bangladesh and other South Asian countries, have been left stranded in the kingdom without pay or even work as the economy has slowed.

The situation among these workers has gotten so drastic that the Saudi government is offering to take on the costs of feeding and repatriating foreign nationals who want to leave. Saudi leaders are also moving to make it more difficult for foreign workers to enter the Saudi labor market in the first place by hiking visa fees.

While critics said those changes will do little to reduce the Saudi budget deficit overall, they might encourage companies to hire Saudi citizens over foreign workers, thus easing the kingdom’s unemployment issues.

At the same time, the austerity measures are also hitting the country’s bloated public sector, where for decades, 90 percent of employed Saudis have toiled in high-paying jobs.

Instead, these days, the once unthinkable has happened: Saudis are working at Starbucks and McDonalds, and other jobs once thought “menial.”

Analysts believe that due to the economic situation and the youth bulge – two-thirds of Saudi Arabia’s 30 million people are under 30 – Saudis will increasingly take private sector service jobs that have previously been performed by millions of foreigners. Almost one-third of the Saudi population consists of foreign workers.

This will impact deeply conservative Saudi society, observers predict, especially as women leave home to work.

Still, some say the most easily visible dramatic change recently lies in the plans introduced earlier this year to transform the country’s economy with the so-called Saudi Vision 2030.

That strategy presages a reduction in oil dependency and the privatization of state assets that Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s son and deputy crown prince, has suggested will be on par with Britain’s Thatcher-era, pro-business reforms of the 1980s.

These changes are necessary and overdue, economists say, if Saudi Arabia is to make its economy viable for the future given its overwhelmingly young population.

But many still wonder if they are enough to spare the Saudi kingdom from the social unrest that has destabilized other countries in the region. After all, it’s the young that initially pushed for change in the rest of the region.


A Crisis Averted

Malaysian police arrested three alleged members of Islamic State (IS) planning a series of attacks in the capital of Kuala Lumpur on the eve of its independence day Wednesday.

The suspects were aiming to use grenades and firearms, and had targeted entertainment venues and a Hindu temple at Malaysia’s famous Batu Caves, but were thwarted by antiterrorism officers earlier this week, said police.

The suspects had also been in contact with Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi, a Malaysian national fighting with IS in Syria, and were planning to join IS in Syria themselves after launching their attack in the country, said police.

Concerns have been growing in predominantly-Muslim Malaysia – and elsewhere in Asia –recently over the influence that militants who have fought in Syria might eventually wield back home.

Fourteen people with supposed links to IS were arrested last month in the country, while in Indonesia, an 18-year-old carrying a handmade IS flag attacked a priest with an ax in a church service in Medan Sunday.

A Dramatic Fall

The Brazilian Senate voted 61 to 20 to impeach President Dilma Rousseff over charges of manipulating the federal budget, ending 13 years of Workers’ Party rule in the country.

Rousseff will be replaced by Michel Temer – the center-right politician who helped lead the campaign against her – for the remainder of her term until new elections are held in 2018.

Observers say Rousseff’s ouster was more than a judgment on the formal charges against her – Brazil’s deteriorating economy and the sweeping corruption investigation Car Wash also played a role in souring the mood against the former leader.

Supporters of impeachment say it is a fitting end for a leader and a political party that had lost its way after becoming mired in corruption.

But opponents of impeachment have called the trial a coup that undermines Brazil’s democracy: They now warn that Rousseff’s ouster will not restore confidence in Brazil’s leaders – nor will it diminish the high levels of corruption that pervade Brazilian politics.

Many Brazilians say impeachment merely transfers power from one scandal-plagued party to another.

Everything changes, they say, everything stays the same.

A Family Affair

Protesters in the central African nation of Gabon set fire to the country’s parliament building in Libreville Wednesday night following a day of protests against what many say is a stolen election.

Gabon has been governed by one wealthy family – the Bongos – since 1967. Incumbent president Ali Bongo, who succeeded his father in 2009, was announced as the winner of the country’s presidential election by a razor-thin margin mid-day Wednesday.

Bongo, who received 49.8 percent of the vote, defeated his main rival Jean Ping, who won 48.2 percent of votes, by a slim 1.6 percent margin.

But while nationwide turnout was less than 60 percent, turnout in Bongo’s home region was reported at over 99 percent – leading many to question the results and to Wednesday’s riots.

Both the US and Gabon’s former colonial power France voiced concerns about the election’s transparency and called for polling stations to release the results from each station publically.


Boxing for Life

With eye-popping cash prizes and those lucrative endorsement deals at stake, it’s a given that professional boxers train hard for their shot at fame and glory.

For a completely different set of stakes, fighters on Cambodia’s child-boxing circuit prepare just as rigorously.

That’s because the traditional Cambodian sport, also known as Kun Khmer fighting, is seen as an opportunity for these boys to bring their rural families out of poverty.

Earning $7 to $10 per victory, these six- to 12-year-old boxers fight to win their communities’ recognition – villagers pool money to reward victors – as well as for gym sponsorships, free housing and food.

Hannah Reyes Morales, a photographer from the Philippines, spent two years photographing these young fighters as they prepared for their day in the ring.

Her pictures display children with a keen awareness of the high stakes – and expectations – surrounding them. And yet, despite this intense pressure, boys will be boys, as Morales noted.

“I saw how they would switch between child and boxer,” she told the Atlantic. “As boxers, they are confident and fierce, and the next minute they would be children, giggling over marbles and excited to share their drawings with me.”

Check out some of her incredible photos here.

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