The World Today for June 28, 2018

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A Crude Balance

One of the many big questions facing the Middle East today is how to balance the price of oil and economic and social reforms.

Fueling growth in America and Europe and, later, China and India, countries in the Persian Gulf enjoyed remarkable economic stability in the decades after World War II. They also happened to be highly traditional Islamic monarchies whose leaders perpetrated civil-rights abuses on their people and guest workers.

But when the price of oil plummeted in recent years – falling from $100 a barrel to $50 in 2014 – the Gulf aristocrats got nervous. How would they sustain their regimes if they couldn’t spend lavishly to paper over their shortcomings?

The National, an English-language daily published in Abu Dhabi, recently outlined how Saudi Arabia has embarked on unprecedented economic and social reforms to diversify its economy away from oil. Saudi leaders are seeking to boost technology and other industries while also letting women drive cars and attend movies and pursuing other social changes that promote commerce.

Bloomberg reported on how Kuwaiti leaders are working to convince parliament to enact reforms they deem necessary, given how the slump in oil prices has swelled the country’s deficit.

But others have raised notes of caution. The price of oil has shot up in recent weeks. Could the region’s autocrats slow progress and use their new windfall to go back to their old ways?

“How Higher Oil Prices Are Undermining Efforts at Economic Reform in the Gulf,” read the headline of a Forbes article that listed a host of examples of how governments in the region were having second thoughts about changing their business models.

The article explained how the United Arab Emirates recently gave public workers and retirees’ the equivalent of a month’s pay to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the country’s founder. In the short-term, such moves make people happy regardless of whether or not they enjoy freedom of expression. But that happiness lasts only so long.

Writing in a Bloomberg opinion column, the director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia Department, Jihad Azour, argued that halting change now would be a big mistake. Oil prices hit $80 per barrel recently, he wrote. But they’re slated to drop to $60 by 2023. Use the extra money to invest in hopes of a return rather than political stability, he advised.

Gulf leaders seem to be thinking differently. OPEC recently decided to pump more oil in part because its curbs on production – designed to increase prices – were causing trouble with Americans and other consumers who were balking at rising costs, the New York Times reported.

Some OPEC members were reluctant to make those changes. But Saudi Arabia pushed for them. After all, it has a little less to lose.



The End of the Road

Leftist frontrunner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wrapped up his campaign for president Wednesday as polls showed his lead widening to a projected 45 percent of the vote versus 19 percent for his closest rival. But the real story of Sunday’s election may be how deadly the campaign season has been.

In the nine months leading up to this weekend’s presidential and legislative elections, 130 candidates have been killed, CNN citedreport by risk analysis firm Etellekt as saying Tuesday. The report noted that 22 of Mexico’s 32 states have seen a political assassination since campaigning began in September, while there were some 543 other attacks on candidates, including kidnappings and extortion attempts.

The nation’s powerful drug cartels are believed to be behind most of the violence.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear what impact Lopez Obrador will have on that issue – or Mexico’s economy – if he does win on Sunday. Along with vowing an end to neoliberalism, he’s said he will review the decision to open the oil industry to private producers in 2013, pledges that have unnerved some investors.


War of Words

A separatist struggle by English-speaking Cameroonians threatens to flare into a full-fledged civil war.

Already, schools, homes and villages have been burned to the ground and travel between some towns has been blocked as government forces seek to quash the struggle to carve out an independent state called Ambazonia, the New York Times reported.

“If nothing is done soon, it will turn into a civil war with grave consequences,” the paper quoted Gaby Ambo, executive director of the Finders Group Initiative, a local human rights watchdog, as saying.

The Anglophone separatist struggle has been underway for decades in Cameroon. But calls for secession have grown louder in recent months and could well result in a spike in violence in the lead-up to presidential elections in October. Many blame longtime President Paul Biya for marginalizing English speakers.

Armed separatists have killed 44 members of the security forces since September, as well as attacking teachers and burning schools, according to Amnesty International. Meanwhile, security forces have arrested hundreds of activists and journalists and tortured detainees to extract confessions.


Victorious Compromise

Poland declared victory in the debate over a controversial law making it illegal to accuse Poles of complicity in the Holocaust, but walked back a measure that allowed for stiff prison sentences.

“We operate in an international context and we take that into account,” Reuters quoted Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki as saying in a speech before parliament, in which he claimed that the law had succeeded in raising international awareness of Polish victims during the Holocaust.

Though still illegal, after an amendment passed Wednesday, such “slander,” in the words of President Andrzej Duda, will now be subject to fines, rather than a prison sentence of as long as three years, NPR said.

As happened elsewhere in Europe during World War Two, thousands of Poles risked their lives to protect their Jewish neighbors, while others aided the Nazis in killing them, according to scholars.

While the law specified accusations of complicity against Poland as a nation, rather than individuals, the World Jewish Congress said it “stifles any real discussion of the extent to which local Poles were complicit” and “sets a dangerous precedent.”


The Nightshift

With humans dominating the planet during the day, all kinds of creatures, from deer to elephants, have taken increasingly to the night to avoid human contact, Science Magazine reported.

Researchers recently analyzed 76 studies of 62 species of mammals across six continents to get a feel for how their behavior has changed in response to human activities like hunting, farming and development.

The analysis, published recently in the journal Science, shows that mammals like foxes and bears increased their nighttime activity to 68 percent of their total time – even though they are traditionally just as active in the day as in the night.

And the phenomenon doesn’t stem only from direct human interference, the researchers wrote. Deer, for example, may take to the nightshift in order to avoid even seeing a human, not just because they’re being hunted.

Researchers posit that the development could lead to more harmonious living throughout the animal kingdom. But they expressed concerns that the lifestyle change could turn out to be problematic for creatures that are traditional day walkers when it comes time to hunt or mate.

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